Emily Thornberry Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury
Labour Party Conference 2021 Speech at New Statesman Event
27th September 2021
A Force For Good – Training provided in the UK to Overseas Military and Security Forces: Report and Recommendations from the Shadow Secretary of State for International Trade – Click on the link to read the full report.
This is my second collaboration of the year with the New Statesman.
The first was in February, when we commemorated the 25th anniversary of Robin Cook’s famous speech in Parliament on the Arms to Iraq scandal.
And it dawned on me working on that event that the central truth which Robin exposed back in 1996 is back with us again today.
If Ministers regard their job simply to do as many trade deals as possible, and there is no legal framework, no transparency, and no scrutiny to constrain them, then why should they care who buys the UK’s goods, or what they intend to do with them.
In those circumstances, Robin realised, the decision to sell arms to a dictator is not an aberration, it is a logical consequence of government policy.
No laws. No transparency. No scrutiny. A recipe for reckless decision-making, and the total disregard of human rights.
In government, Robin introduced constraints into the arms export regime, and in June 2019, we saw them in action.
The Campaign Against the Arms Trade was able to show that Ministers were breaching the law requiring them properly to assess the risk that arms sold to Saudi Arabia were being used to violate international law in Yemen.
The Court of Appeal agreed, and suspended those exports.
Liz Truss was new in the post of Trade Secretary, and she could have told the Saudis that was it until they stopped targeting civilians. Instead, she worked for a year to find away around Robin Cook’s constraints.
In July 2020, based on a fresh government analysis which she refused to share with Parliament – despite my hundreds of demands, she concluded that any violations of international law were “isolated incidents”, although she refused to tell Parliament how many – despite my hundreds of requests, and that – having now properly considered the risks – she could safely resume UK exports.
Just five days after her decision, a Saudi jet fired a US-made missile at a civilian home in North-West Yemen, killing nine members of the same family, all women, children and toddlers, yet another so-called ‘isolated incident’.
You might think that fresh massacre, and the previous judgement of the courts, would have persuaded Truss to act cautiously. Instead, from July to September last year, she authorised the sale of 1.4 billion pounds in bombs and missiles to Saudi Arabia, almost as much as the previous nineteen quarters combined.
What she exposed through those decisions in 2020, is what I warned about here in Brighton in 2017.
That the arms export regime introduced by Robin Cook may have been a vast improvement, but was still too reliant on the subjective judgements of Ministers.
And when the Minister is as bereft of morality and conscience as Liz Truss, we know that every judgement will fall in favour of the arms dealers and dictators, and against the protection of civilian life.
It is no coincidence that, from the moment Truss came into the role in 2019, the attitude that human rights should not constrain the flow of trade became entrenched in that department’s policy, and will continue even now she has left.
Besides Yemen, she took three other crucial steps.
First and most brazen, Truss boasted about rolling over post-Brexit trade deals with some of the most abusive regimes in the world – the likes of Colombia, Egypt, Turkey and Zimbabwe – with no attempt to strengthen the human rights provisions in those deals, and no apparent qualms over whether they should be signed at all.
I thought at least she might hesitate over the deal with the corrupt, murderous regime of Cameroon’s President Biya, engaged since 2017 in a brutal campaign of violence against his country’s English-speaking communities.
After all, in January 2020, even Donald Trump had cancelled Cameroon’s trade preferences because of, I quote, its “persistent, gross violations of human rights against its own citizens”.
In February 2020, Boya’s troops raided the village of Ngarbuh, and in a war where most of the dying is done by those who cannot run, that is who they found – the elderly, pregnant women, mothers with toddlers – so they massacred 21 of them, including nine children under the age of five.
In September 2020, the Republican-controlled US Senate tabled a resolution urging America’s allies to use – I quote – “all available diplomatic tools” to put pressure on the Biya regime to stop – I quote – its “massacres and burning of villages”.
But in December 2020, despite all that, the Biya regime was handed its new trade deal by Liz Truss, with continued preferential access to the UK market and no questions asked.
Second and most pernicious, in the course of those rollover negotiations, Truss quietly broke from a principle that successive UK governments had supported since 1995, and I just want to explain the background to this.
Trade deals are supposed to be a two-way street. Mostly, between two developed countries, that’s a simple exchange of benefits – we sell you more of this, you sell us more of that. But with less developed countries, there’s a different dynamic.
There we’ve historically tended to say, if we give you preferential access to our market to help support your economy, we want to set certain conditions, and that includes respect for human rights, workers’ rights and democracy.
So in 1995, it was agreed that every new EU trade deal would make human rights an essential element, allowing the treaty to be suspended if the human rights commitments are broken.
Liz Truss edged away from that principle in her deals with Turkey, Singapore and Vietnam, but she claimed she was merely replicating the specific EU treaties that came before. For example the EU-Turkey agreement was signed back in 1964.
For her deal with Norway and Iceland, there was no such excuse, but no-one cared because those countries are not human rights abusers. I predict the same will be true of Australia.
But what does that do? Having broken that principle, it means the government can now strike a deal with the Gulf States, and with Brazil, with no sign of a human rights clause, and no need to hold up negotiations by seeking one.
Third, and perhaps most amazing of all, Truss initiated a review in July – which is still ongoing – into the human rights conditions that the UK applies when it gives preferential trade to lower and middle income countries.
Again, those conditions exist so that when we give preferential access to those countries, the benefits of that access go at least in part to the working people of those countries to support their jobs and economic development, and it is a lever to try and ensure that their human rights are not being used by authoritarian governments.
If we don’t have those conditions in place, then we run the risk that the benefits of preferential access to our market will just go to brutal governments who are abusing their people’s rights and profiting from their labour.
Now, having refused to enforce those conditions after clear violations by Cambodia and Sri Lanka early in 2021, Truss has opened the door to scrapping them entirely.
And it’s worth noting the argument Truss used whenever I asked her why she wouldn’t enforce those conditions, or indeed the human rights clauses in her rollover deals.
Time after time, she told me that it would be the poorest people in those countries who would suffer most if we took action through the trade system to try and protect their human rights. In effect, she tried to tell me what she doing was looking out for female garment workers in Cambodia, by refusing to protest the denial of their labour rights.
She tried to tell me she was looking out for villagers in Cameroon, by refusing to suspend Britain’s trade deal with the Biya regime.
And if that sounds familiar, many of you will know that was exactly the same argument which Margaret Thatcher used throughout the 1980s to defy the calls for sanctions against South Africa.
She was only looking out for the interests of Black South Africans, she explained.
She said she knew better about what was good for them than Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, or Allan Boesak.
On this very day 36 years ago, when Mozambique’s President Machel lobbied her in Downing Street, Thatcher said that she knew better than him.
And now we have Liz Truss repeating the same morally-bankrupt, intellectually-vacant argument to insist that trade cannot be used to defend human rights.
For the last eighteen months, I have tried – along with the rest of the Labour Party, MPs from other parties, and campaign groups across the country – to impose constraints on Truss and her successors through the Parliamentary process.
Three times earlier this year, we debated amendments to the Trade Bill which would have made trade deals conditional on countries’ human rights records, or given Parliament the right to vote on all trade deals, so that we could veto deals with abusive regimes.
After all, as I said in those debates, if we don’t have laws in place to limit the actions of ministers, then we at least need a final say over the actions they propose.
Personally, I would always argue that we need both, and most MPs agreed we certainly need one or the other, but only the government insisted that we should have neither, and fought ferociously in those debates to ensure that was the outcome.
Because just as Robin Cook exposed in 1996, when it comes to their decisions on trade, they want no laws, no transparency, and no scrutiny.
And we should just pause for a second to ask why.
It’s tempting to think they’re sympathetic to these abusive regimes, the way Thatcher was with Pinochet, or that there’s some level of corruption involved, as there was with Jonathan Aitken back in the days of Arms-to-Iraq?
But I believe the primary answer is more prosaic. And like most things about this government, it comes back to Brexit.
The more the damage accumulates from Boris Johnson’s botched agreement with the EU, and the more stubbornly he refuses to fix the holes in that deal, the more desperate his government is becoming to secure trade deals elsewhere in a doomed attempt to make up those losses.
The more desperate they become for those deals, the more impossible it becomes for them to criticise the conduct of those countries and their leaders, whether it is Bolsonaro burning down the Amazon, Netanyahu bombing children in Gaza, or Bin Salman murdering journalists in Istanbul.
That’s why the government is completely incapable of taking clear, strong, consistent positions on issues like human rights, and why they refuse to be subject to any laws, transparency or scrutiny which would bind their hands.
That is the logical consequence of their Brexit trade policy.
And one of the reasons that matters is when we are asked the inevitable questions – ‘Would Labour be any different? Wouldn’t we face the same pressure to do deals with people we don’t like?’ – one big difference is that we can afford to make different choices.
Because our central priority would be fixing our trading relationship with Europe, we would not be forced into chasing the relatively small gains from, for example, a free trade deal with Brazil, where our exports last year were one fifth of what we sold to Belgium.
But of course, much more than financial factors, we know it is our principles and values that will make a Labour government different when it comes to human rights and trade.
We know that our history of solidarity with oppressed brothers and sisters across the world will compel us to make different choices to Liz Truss and her colleagues.
But we should also know – and I think this is the most important lesson to learn from Robin Cook – those principles and values cannot by themselves deliver change.
As Robin found at the Foreign Office, it is not enough just to introduce ethical new policies, because they are far too easy for your Cabinet colleagues to undermine, or for your successors to unpick.
What you need above all is to introduce new laws, and change the system to an extent that is politically impossible to reverse.
So, at the TUC Congress earlier this month, I proposed five new laws that a future Labour government will introduce in this area of trade and human rights.
I said we will amend the Trade Act — in the way the government refused to do – enabling Parliament to block new trade deals with countries engaged in serious abuses of human rights, and enshrining in law the principle that there must be meaningful, enforceable Human Rights Clauses as essential elements of every deal.
We will legislate for the publication of an Annual Assessment of Human Rights and Workers’ Rights in each country which already enjoys preferential trade with the UK to determine if they are complying with our conditions, and should continue to receive it.
We will legislate for the expansion of new Due Diligence Laws, obliging major UK corporations to police their own supply chains, ensure they are not complicit in the violation of human rights, and face serious financial penalties if they fail.
But because that policing cannot be left to business alone, we will also legislate for Targeted Import Bans on goods coming to the UK from factories and farms overseas where forced labour and child labour are being used, including from the Uighur camps in Xinjiang.
And to underpin all of these changes, we will legislate so that Parliament always has a guaranteed right to debate and vote on any proposal from the government to negotiate, agree, or renew each trade agreement.
In all those areas, a future Labour government will actively choose to impose new laws on ourselves, and new requirements for transparency and scrutiny, not just to improve our own decision-making, but to constrain the actions of all future governments that follow.
And in conclusion, I have one more change that I want to propose today, rooted in those same objectives, and inspired by Robin Cook’s work on arms exports 25 years ago.
The British armed forces and police are rightly regarded as among the most skilled and professional in the world. It is no surprise that countries from every continent send their personnel to the UK to learn from ours.
And we benefit from that training too. It helps our foreign counterparts to tackle the collective threats we face like terrorism and cyber-crime, and the relationships we establish play a vital, long-term role in protecting British citizens and interests overseas.
But there is an inescapable problem.
If all countries wish to learn from ours, we will inevitably face situations where some of the training being provided in Britain is used to abuse human rights overseas, ranging from the brutal repression of peaceful protesters to the indiscriminate targeting of civilians in war.
Some people will argue that the conduct of overseas forces would be even worse if not for our training, but where is the evidence?
In 2014, David Cameron’s government decided – despite the warnings of campaigners – that it was time to restore training links with the military in Myanmar, in recognition of the transition to democratic rule.
Five times from 2014 to 2017, senior military leaders from Myanmar took part in the MoD’s flagship course to teach security forces about their human rights responsibilities. Twice the MoD put those courses on in Myanmar itself.
And yet, when those leaders launched their genocide against the Rohingya in 2017, gang-raping women, attacking children, killing indiscriminately, burning entire villages – the UN concluded that their “acts of extreme brutality were only possible in a climate…where military personnel had no reasonable fear of punishment or disciplinary action.”
We cannot tell ourselves that British training is always a force for good when we have examples like that when it has been anything but, not to mention the role of UK-trained snipers in Bahrain, or secret police in Saudi Arabia, during the Arab Spring.
So I am today publishing a new report into this issue, which asks one fundamental question: why are decisions to provide military and security training to overseas governments not made on the same basis as decisions on whether to sell them arms?
After all, there is no practical difference between selling Saudi Arabia an attack jet to use against civilians in Yemen, and training a Saudi pilot to fly it. So when the courts ordered the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia to be stopped in 2019, why were almost 100 training courses for coalition forces authorised in that same year, attack pilots included?
Under the current system – such as it is – the government is supposed to conduct risk assessments in relation to each training request.
But they cannot tell us how many requests were turned down in the last five years, if any at all, or even how many were judged high risk.
And you have to ask, if the requests from Brazil, Hong Kong and Myanmar for public order training were not considered too risky, which requests would have been?
Cameroon, which requested no training at all in the two years before their assault on the country’s English-speaking regions, has since then received three rounds of advanced command courses for senior officers, as well as battle training for platoon commanders, and nowhere apparently did that raise any red flags.
My report today contains dozens of further examples along those lines.
But what they all come down to is what Robin Cook exposed 25 years ago: when there are no laws, no transparency, and no scrutiny, then the government will do whatever it wants.
So I can announce that a future Labour government will impose the same legal controls and transparency requirements on the provision of military and security training to overseas forces as we apply to the export of arms.
It will become unlawful for Ministers to authorise training where there is a serious risk it will be used by the recipient forces to violate international law, or engage in acts of internal repression, or external aggression.
Like arms exports, the decisions made by Ministers on training will be published on a quarterly basis, and like arms exports, those decisions will be subject to scrutiny by Parliament and challenge in the courts.
And most importantly, when we conduct the root-and-branch reform of our arms export regime which I promised here in Brighton in 2017, whatever changes we make to that system will apply equally to our provision of training as well.
If we reform these rules correctly, it will not affect the prestige or popularity of the training we offer in the UK, but it will give us greater confidence that those lessons will always be used as a force for good, to uphold the rule of law and protect innocent civilians around the world, and never – as much as we can ever help it – to do the opposite.
And this for me can become the prime example of our entire approach to the issue of human rights and trade, and how we intend to turn this issue around in government.
Trade should not require us to suspend our morals, as Thatcher, Truss and Boris Johnson would have you believe.
Trade can instead be used to place pressure on overseas regimes and change their conduct, as Desmond Tutu and Robin Cook both thought it could.
It can be used to demonstrate the principles and values we stand for as a country.
It can be used as a positive force for good in the world, and as a silver bullet for the promotion of human rights.
And all that should be the logical consequence of a Labour trade policy once we are restored to government.