My 14 Priorities for 2014

Admittedly, my direct involvement is in Asia and so I draw heavily on my experiences there. But the principles hold, wherever they arise - for the values in contention are universal.

I have long been an admirer of Jack Healey. I have never met him, but I have followed his work and felt a kindred spirit across the Atlantic. Therefore I read his human rights priorities for 2014 with eager anticipation. I must admit, I was sorely disappointed. While I agree with him that all the points he listed require attention, and I agree that some of them should be priorities, I was surprised by some grave omissions.

Let's start with the areas of agreement: Burma, Sri Lanka, Iran, Saudi Arabia, ending religious violence, aiding Syrian refugees and listening to Africans on Africa's development. On these, at least in principle, we have common ground.

However, as a list of fourteen priorities I was surprised that North Korea and Eritrea were completely missing, that there was a disproportionate amount of emphasis on US behaviour, and then how did Taiwan come in at number two? Meanwhile, no mention in the category of Burma of ethnic and religious conflicts. None of the concerns listed can be denied, all are desirable, but as a top-14 wish-list it was a peculiar assortment.

So, I offer my own. Admittedly, my direct involvement is in Asia and so I draw heavily on my experiences there. But the principles hold, wherever they arise - for the values in contention are universal.

1.North Korea: my number one priority in 2014 has to be the world's most closed nation, potentially the world's worst human rights crisis, North Korea. In March, the UN Commission of Inquiry will report to the Human Rights Council, though their report will be public a month or two earlier. I hope the inquiry will conclude that what is happening amounts to crimes against humanity, and a case be referred to the International Criminal Court. I hope the UN Security Council will make North Korea's human rights crisis a permanent agenda item, and that the Human Rights Council and General Assembly will take forward the Commission of Inquiry's conclusions and recommendations and ensure that it does not simply sit as a report on a shelf gathering dust, but instead is regarded as a plan of action. I hope also the world will take steps to break the regime's information blockade, by increasing support for distribution of USBs and DVDs containing news and entertainment, smuggled across the border. The BBC World Service could make a unique difference, as it did in Burma, by establishing a Korean radio service broadcast into the world's most closed nation.

2.Burma - I agree with Jack Healey about the need to continue supporting Aung San Suu Kyi. But I was surprised he did not mention the ethnic and religious conflicts in Burma, and the need to ensure that there is real progress towards a genuine peace process with the ethnic nationalities, and initiatives to promote inter-religious harmony and counter rising religious intolerance. If anti-Muslim hatred continues to fester, and if the ethnic nationalities' desires for equal rights are not addressed, there will be no true democracy in Burma.

3.Indonesia - a country which is often celebrated for its transition to democracy and its tradition of religious pluralism is descending increasingly into a climate of religious intolerance that threatens all it has achieved. As my forthcoming report, due out in February, will show, Indonesia's pluralism is in peril. Pressure must be increased on the Indonesian government, and the candidates for the presidency in this election year, to take action to protect religious minorities and promote religious freedom.

4.Vietnam - the plight of political dissidents, bloggers and religious minorities seldom gets the attention it deserves. In 2014, I hope Vietnam's human rights situation will come under greater scrutiny, and that just as its economy has opened up, so too will its respect for civil and political rights.

5.Laos - billed as a quaint and charming backpackers' destination, slow-paced and rustic, Laos is in fact perhaps the most repressive country in Asia besides North Korea. Few know that, and it deserves more attention.

6.China - Western leaders should develop a consistent policy, and be less afraid to raise human rights with China. As the countdown to the release of dissident lawyer Gao Zhisheng begins, and as Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo remains detained, pressure should be increased on the new President Xi Jinping to follow up his reformist rhetoric with action.

7.China's policy on North Korea - following the execution of pro-China leader Jang Song-thaek in North Korea, China should be encouraged to pull the plug on the brutal regime in Pyongyang, which is kept in power by Beijing's support. China should also be urged to adopt a more responsible policy towards North Korean refugees, and allow them safe passage to South Korea as refugees sur place instead of forcibly returning them to a dire fate in North Korea.

8. Eritrea - after North Korea, Eritrea is probably the world's most closed and repressive regime, yet it is hardly mentioned. It is time to talk more about Africa's North Korea.

9. The Maldives - while elections finally took place in 2013, the new President is the brother of the old dictator, Gayoom, and so questions remain over respect for human rights. The situation in the Maldives should continue to be monitored to ensure it does not regress further back to the bad old days of Gayoom's dictatorship.

10.Blasphemy laws around the world - a topic I wrote about on this site earlier this year, blasphemy laws around the world wreak havoc and misery on many people. A new report by Reporters Without Borders details the issue. A worldwide movement by people of all religions or none to repeal blasphemy laws is needed.

11.Preventing Sexual Violence - I hope William Hague's initiative will take on a truly global significance, and that the fine words will lead to real action on the ground to end the torture and torment of too many women in too many places.

12.Child soldiers - the recruitment of child soldiers remains a major human rights violation and deserves to be prioritised.

13. Consistency - while different countries, situations and thematic issues will inevitably require different approaches, and while there is certainly an important place for quiet diplomacy, there is all too often an inconsistency in standards over human rights in foreign policy. I highlighted this in last year's article and repeat it here. Our foreign policy must actively promote human rights for all, everywhere, always.

14.Speak up for each other - While there is increasing focus on the persecution of Christians around the world, in recent speeches by Baroness Warsi and the Prince of Wales, a debate in the House of Commons, and an article by Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander, and these are of course long overdue, much needed and very welcome indeed, I would like to see a world in which Christians speak also for Ahmadi and Shia Muslims and atheists facing persecution, where Buddhists speak up for Christians, where secularists and atheists speak up for people of faith, where we all speak for each other, for the universal freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which includes the freedom to choose, to practice, to share and to change your religion or belief, or to have no religion at all.

That's my 14-point wish list for 2014, I'd encourage you to write your own, and then advocate and champion it, together with others.

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