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Brexit Britain: the world's human rights champion

Andrew Allison
February 15, 2018

Free from the EU, the UK can adopt a tougher international development policy whereby aid to those in need will be met, where appropriate, by crippling sanctions imposed upon the autocratic torturous regimes that so often preside over them, argues Andrew Allison. 

Penny Mordaunt, the UK's freshly appointed Secretary of State for International Development (DfID), recently announced that the UK Government will cease to fund a social protection programme in Kenya in 2024, leaving the Kenyan government to take over responsibility for the scheme. After UK taxpayers have already contributed £143m to the programme, this should be the starting signal for Theresa May to link Britain's foreign aid spending to human rights as a means to increase Britain's soft power post-Brexit.

The move is part of the Whitehall's push to prioritise aid spending in a way that aligns with British national interests. It's often touted that the UK has one of the highest aid percentages in the world, amounting to a staggering £10.5 billion in 2016-2017. But instead of throwing wads of cash at regimes who trample the rights of their people underfoot, May seems to awaken to the fact that promoting human rights is more in line with the UK's national interests.

The United Kingdom has a long and proud tradition of creating universal norms. From Magna Carta to Habeas Corpus to the abolition of slavery, Britain has laid the foundations for championing human rights, their laws, and the dignity of men. It is thus not a surprise that Britain has traditionally been a leading voice in promoting human rights in Europe and beyond.

While Great Britain is supremely positioned to be a global human rights champion, the government under May has so far criminally neglected London's strong voice and has repeatedly failed to step up to the plate. In a speech given in December last year to mark International Human Rights Day, Foreign Office Minister Mark Field said the UK was as committed as ever to the universal principles set out in the UN Declaration on Human Rights. If this is so, the question remains why the government does not pull its weight to act where others will not.

May has been remarkably quiet about the egregious human rights abuses currently perpetrated in places such as Africa. For starters, London could begin with calling out the complicity of British companies and banks in abuses committed across Africa, showing the world that the UK is not applying double standards by ignoring the actions of British entities. While the UK is already a leader in tackling overseas corruption and crime, more must be done by businesses from enabling repressive regimes.

This need is particularly pressing in the case of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), probably Africa's most unstable state right now, where Anglo-Swiss mining company Glencore paid millions to Israeli billionaire Dan Gertler to secure a lucrative mining contract from DRC president Joseph Kabila. Gertler is known to have a close relationship with Kabila, who has thrown his country into chaos by refusing to step down from his position despite having long exceeded presidential term limits.

Kabila has cracked down ruthlessly on protesters against his prolonged rule, and is responsible for at least 1,176 extra-judicial killings under his watch in 2017, according to UN figures. Furthermore, Kabila has employed delaying tactics to scuttle any progress in the country's political transition.

More than a year after his term ended, he has still refused to call elections. The country's leading opposition candidate Moïse Katumbi, was forced into exile on false charges, and was the victim of an attempt on his life in 2016 prior to his escape into exile. Katumbi is widely regarded the only realistic replacement for Kabila, because of his broad support among the population.

As a permanent member of the United Nations (UN) Security Council, Britain has the power to start new initiatives to put an end to the violence in the DRC. London could use its sway to lead the charge in expanding the mandate of the UN peacekeeping mission to the DRC (MONUSCO). This way, UN troops could provide more effective protection of civilians against government security forces. This would be in line with London's 2017 declaration that human rights protection in the DRC is a priority.

Meanwhile, Kenya has seen rapid democratic backsliding. President Kenyatta has recently embarked on a media crackdown when defied a court order to allow three TV channels to resume their operations. The channels were planning to broadcast the mock inauguration of Kenyatta's long-time rival and opposition leader Raila Odinga.

The move is part of Kenyatta's wider plan to systematically dismantle institutions that are threatening his authority, forcing journalists into hiding and intimidating civil society into quiet servitude. However, the crackdown has incited ordinary Kenyans, who have been wary about increasingly oppressive government policies that are excluding the majority of the population from economic gains.

With the DRC enveloped in conflict, and Kenya teetering on the brink, the UK must seize the chance to step forward and lead the way in introducing more biting sanctions on the leaderships of Kenya and the DRC, targeting the presidents and their top officials directly. More broadly, using carrots, sticks and its global reach, Britain can make a genuine difference in those countries where government sanctioned murders, torture and other abuses are commonplace. The government must speak out against those transgressions and, if soft power fails, be able to show that its human rights policies have teeth as well.

To strengthen its global position, simply breaking free from the EU's constraints isn't enough. While the UK is already charting its own path regarding the way it distributes aid (or doesn't), to be the true human rights leader it ought to be, it must have the courage to take a stance where others have been quiet.

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