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Benedict Rogers Headshot

What I Want for Christmas Is a Substantial Commitment to Freedom

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Humankind is fickle and superficial. Not all human beings, by any means, but many, especially those in international policy-making and diplomacy. One moment they talk of freedom, democracy and human rights, but then at the first glint of a dollar sign, the lips that previously gave those values rhetorical service are salivating and old friends and causes forgotten.

A parallel could be drawn with Christmas. We sing the carols, hear the readings and wish each other season's greetings, but how much of the profound depth of the message we're reiterating actually sinks in? We rush through the words describing the revolution that was born in that stable 2,000 years ago, yet do we mean the words we sing? Do we even understand them? Too often, the Christmas lights of the nearest shops and the offer of booze at another office Christmas party appear more enticing. Even when unwrapping our presents on Christmas Day, we move swiftly from one gift to another, mouthing platitudes but eager to unwrap the next seemingly bigger, better package. Tinseltown beats Bethlehem any day, in our modern, instant gratification culture.

Yet in the long-term, is this really satisfying? The tinsel is put away for another year, the wrapping paper binned or recycled, and many of the gifts sit on a shelf, to be forgotten. The more profound, deeper, truer message of Christmas, however, is there always, if we only stop to listen. If, through the rush to indulge our selfish desires, we can begin to hear that deeper message, we will find it infinitely more rewarding and fulfilling than the passing gluttonous moments we all enjoy but later regret.

In international policy, it is the same. I want to share four very different, but equally important, examples.

Not so long ago, British and other Western politicians stood at the forefront of calls for change in Burma. Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest, political prisoners were in jail, monks were being shot in the streets, and ethnic minorities were raped, tortured, enslaved and killed. The international community, or at least large parts of it, spoke out in outrage. Britain led the way. Sanctions were imposed, occasionally tightened, and condemnation poured down on the brutal military regime in Burma.

Over the past year or two, there have certainly been some very remarkable changes in Burma. Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest two years ago, and elected to parliament in a by-election earlier this year, along with 42 of her colleagues in the National League for Democracy (NLD). Many political prisoners, including almost all the most high-profile dissidents known as the 88 Generation, have been freed, and are now able to organise and play an active role in civic life. Media freedoms have been relaxed, and there is more space for civil society. Preliminary ceasefires have been agreed with many of the country's ethnic nationalities, possibly ending decades of civil war. On the surface, these are welcome signs. Burma's government has got out the tinsel.

Nevertheless, there is still a long way to go. The Burma Army continues its brutal offensive against civilians in Kachin State, causing the displacement of more than 100,000 people. The persecution of the Muslim Rohingyas is intense, bordering on ethnic cleansing. Several hundred dissidents remain in jail. And as Friday's Unreported World documentary shows, military-run companies in partnership with China are grabbing land and wreaking havoc on communities on a significant scale.

For there to be genuine change in Burma, unjust laws must be repealed and the constitution must be amended. A serious political dialogue with the ethnic nationalities is required. Only through the establishment of a genuine federal democracy, in which ethnic rights are upheld, can there be real peace.

Yet these substantive points appear to be passing the international community by. There is an unseemly, almost unthinking rush to embrace Burma. Like an impatient child unwilling to wait for Christmas Day, the international community is unwrapping the toys before it is time. For the international community, Burma is tinseltown, not Bethlehem.

That isn't to say we should all be Mr Scrooge and be miserable. Not at all. There are reasons to be optimistic, just as there are reasons to be cautious. There are two dangers in regard to Burma: premature euphoria, on the one hand, and entrenched cynicism, on the other. The first fails to understand the proper message; the second refuses to believe it. The same is true of Christmas.
The second example is democracy in the Maldives - an example of a Christmas present a few years ago which the international community unwrapped, then forgot about. The world's negligence has caused democracy in that beautiful archipelago not simply to decay, but to die a strangled death. Reminiscent of Herod's massacre of the innocents after the birth of Christ, freedom in the Maldives has been throttled in its infancy.

In 2006, I visited the Maldives during the final years of the Gayoom dictatorship. I visited the leader of the opposition at the time, Mohamed Nasheed, under house arrest. I campaigned for his release. A few months later, he was freed, reformers in the Maldives began a transition to democracy, and in 2008 he was elected president. For the first time in its history, the Maldives had a democratic government that respected human rights and was beginning to make significant improvements in the lives of its people. Four years of hope ended on 7 February this year, when Nasheed was overthrown in a coup d'etat backed by the old dictator Gayoom and his cronies, and hardline Islamists. Subsequently Nasheed has been arrested, detained for a few days and is now on trial. Many of his colleagues have been beaten and jailed. Amnesty International has called the situation a "human rights crisis".

David Cameron had reportedly described Nasheed as his new "best friend". Yet Britain's voice since the coup has been strangely muffled, and - along with others in the international community - we appear to have been quick to abandon our old friend and snuggle up to the new regime. Why? Tourist dollars, perhaps? The coup leader and new dictator, President Waheed, a Gayoom puppet, is trying to lure the international community with more tinsel.

Thirdly, Indonesia. Yes, it has made a remarkable transition from dictatorship to democracy, and yes, it does have a tradition of religious pluralism and moderate Islam. But again, Britain and others have been unthinkingly quick to tear off the shiny wrapping paper, without grappling with the looming challenge of rising religious intolerance which threatens to tear Indonesia's pluralism apart. An atheist is in jail in Indonesia, churches are under increasing attack, and the Ahmadi and Shia Muslim communities face growing violence and discrimination. In addition, Indonesia's military continues its reign of terror in West Papua. As I have previously argued, if we want to be a true friend to Indonesia, we should be raising these concerns as a priority. Instead, we have given President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono a knighthood and some fighter jets. The short-term glint of dollar signs wrapped in tinsel has superseded long-term human rights and security concerns.

Finally, North Korea. In contrast to the other three examples, we have not rushed in to embrace the regime or do business. But nor have we taken the action we should to tackle the world's worst human rights crisis and try to open up the world's most closed nation.

For the most part, we've tried to ignore North Korea. When it does feature on the agenda, it is because of a security crisis, to do with the regime's rocket launches or nuclear programme. But it is illustrative of the superficial nature of international policy that for the past year, commentators have speculated as to whether Kim Jong-un's leadership could mean change and opening for the hermit kingdom, just because he is young, educated abroad and wears cowboy hats. Typical of the rubric of style over substance, image over thought, superficiality over depth that seems to dominate international policy-making as it does so many other aspects of modern life. Never mind the fact that he has launched a severe crackdown on people escaping the country, or that more than 200,000 people languish in North Korea's gulags. Hey, he has an attractive young woman at his side and he enjoys fairground rides, so he must herald reform.

In 2006, as shadow foreign secretary, William Hague pledged to place "human rights at the heart of foreign policy". In subsequent speeches over the past six years, in opposition and in government, he repeated that promise. To a large extent he has stayed true to his promise, at least rhetorically. His personal campaign to end sexual violence in conflicts deserves huge respect. The leadership he and David Cameron showed over Libya was welcome. He has been outspoken on Syria. I do not fault his leadership, or commitment to these values, at all. Indeed, having a foreign secretary who is the biographer of William Wilberforce, the man who led the campaign to abolish the slave trade, gives me hope.

It is, however, to others that I appeal. Other British government ministers, our diplomatic service, our media, and governments in other parts of Europe and the world. I appeal to them to follow William Hague's example, and put human rights at the centre of policy-making. I appeal to them not to be lured by glistening tinsel, and instead to dig deep in search of long-lasting change. I appeal to them not to rush in at the first sign of short-term profit, or at least not to abandon a focus on the values of human rights and democracy building in the process.

What do I want for Christmas? A genuine democracy and true peace in Burma, the restoration of democracy in the Maldives, an end to religious intolerance in Indonesia, a just and peaceful solution for the people of West Papua, and freedom for North Korea. Like all really valuable Christmas presents, these require thoughtful time and effort, and can't simply be bought ready-made off the shelf. But if time, thought and effort is invested, these Christmas gifts would endure the test of time.

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