It's Time to Recalibrate Our Foreign Policy

01/06/2016 15:41 | Updated 01 June 2016

The Parliamentary calendar last Tuesday was dominated by debate on Foreign Policy. It started with oral questions to the Foreign Office, followed by an urgent question on the possible use of UK cluster munitions by Saudi Arabia in Yemen, then a long awaited update on military action against Daesh in Iraq and Syria. Eventually we got to the main business of the day- a Queen's Speech debate on Europe and Foreign Affairs.

Put together, these exchanges confirmed that, the Conservative Government has followed a path where trade relationships, rather than human rights, come first.

To put it bluntly, and to quote a senior civil servant in the Foreign Office, Sir Simon McDonald, the Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office, human rights are no longer a priority for the UK Government.

The Foreign Secretary has since claimed that Sir Simon simply misspoke and what he meant was that human rights were now mainstreamed within the FCO. But if Sir Simon misspoke, he did it three times, in quick succession, and in front of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.

This is a damning indictment of the foreign policy of the Government.

This Queen's Speech was a chance to reaffirm the Government's commitment to upholding and promoting human rights in the world. This chance has been missed.

Our Government should be leading calls condemning violations of human rights in China, where political protesters and journalists end up in jail and Tibetans and other minorities are systematically oppressed. Instead David Cameron and George Osborne chose to roll out the red carpet for President Xi and showcase much of British industry as unabashedly 'for sale'.

The decision by the Foreign Secretary to prevent embassies from flying the Rainbow Flag for Pride 2015 was a clear sign that LGBT+ rights are too much of a political inconvenience to visibly champion.

In fact, the only Bill in the Queen's Speech which aims to develop this Government's foreign policy is the Cultural Property (Armed Conflicts) Bill. While I of course welcome the protection of culture in war, it only serves to remind us of this Government's shameful disregard for International Humanitarian Law.

How can Government trumpet that it intends ratifying legislation to protect cultural buildings and museums and yet abet a Saudi-led Coalition's flagrant violations of IHL, including the destruction of cultural property, in Yemen? Reports have shown that Saudi-led forces, which have been supplied with copious quantities of UK weapons, have destroyed parts of a UNESCO World Heritage Site and over 50 archaeological sites and numerous museums. This is on top of the indiscriminate bombing of civilians, hospitals, schools and marketplaces.

In response, the Liberal Democrats have used the Queen's Speech to announce a new set of proposals to uphold fundamental human rights and reclaim the UK's position as a nation which is a proud advocate of human rights.

We want to address the international arms trade which our country is so complicit in, through introducing an arms brokers' register. This would mean that anyone who is involved in the export, import and transfer of weapons from and to the UK would be required to do a biannual registration on the arms brokers' register. The Government would then be required to carry out criminal and tax checks on all parties involved in arms deals.

The neglect of human rights by our Government must cease. The established pattern of ignoring repeated and horrendous human rights violations in exchange for a good trade deal shames our moral standing in the world. The Lib Dems believe that it's time for an independent Ombudsman to be established to monitor IHL violations. This Ombudsman can then report and advise the Foreign Office on any IHL abuses committed by nations deploying UK weapons.

Finally, further transparency and clarification needs to be cast over our Government's actions when it comes to international conflicts and the deployment of our armed forces. The less accountable a government is, the more disillusioned the public feel towards politics and government decisions. Liberal Democrats believe that we need urgent clarification of the legality of the use of drones and greater transparency and accountability of the decision-making process which determines how and when they're used and against whom.

The world faces a level of instability not seen since the Cold War. To avoid further escalation of conflict and insecurity, and to ensure our country does not lose its standing in the world, we need to put human rights and the observance of international law centre stage again. The Liberal Democrats intend being one of the main actors in this revival.