Will Hammond Keep Human Rights 'At the Very Heart' of Foreign Policy?

With the departure of Burt, Hague and now Warsi, the FCO is left without any ministers who show any deep personal commitment to human rights... It would be unfair to prejudge Philip Hammond and Baroness Anelay, Sayeeda Warsi's replacement, this early on. Instead, one must simply appeal to them to prove the sceptics wrong.

Eight and a half years ago, I drafted a speech for William Hague as Shadow Foreign Secretary, containing a pledge to put human rights "at the very heart of foreign policy". I fully expected the draft to be diluted, qualified or amended, but it was not. He delivered what I had written, verbatim. I wrote several further speeches on human rights and foreign policy for him during the early years in Opposition, and he repeatedly delivered the message: a Conservative government would always put human rights at the centre of its foreign policy. He reiterated this again soon after he became Foreign Secretary.

These speeches were the culmination of an effort which began in 2003, when James Mawdsley and I co-authored a paper called New Ground: Engaging People with the Conservative Party through a bold, principled and imaginative foreign policy. Our ideas were greeted enthusiastically by successive shadow foreign secretaries, from Michael Ancram to Liam Fox to William Hague. This led to the establishment of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission in 2005, initiated by Liam Fox and embraced by William Hague.

As a Conservative and a campaigner for international human rights, I had long felt frustration at a common question posed to me: "How can you be a Tory and a human rights activist?" To me, it is a natural combination. Conservatives pride themselves on standing for freedom, the rule of law and responsibility - and if we defend those values at home, we should surely promote them abroad too. The party has a fine tradition of standing up against injustice: William Wilberforce's struggle against slavery, Winston Churchill's fight against Nazi tyranny, and Margaret Thatcher's battle against communist oppression to name just three examples. Yet Conservatives have not always been consistent in their approach, and I had hoped that the new embrace of human rights as a flagship theme in foreign policy would herald change.

In Opposition, William Hague lived up to his rhetoric. Not only did he make several speeches repeating his pledge to promote human rights; he also pressed the then Labour government, on issues such as Darfur and Burma.

In government, he maintained the theme, particularly with his personal campaign to end sexual violence in conflict. Policy was not always so consistent - sometimes the mandarins' caution prevailed - but nevertheless one felt we had a Foreign Secretary who still championed human rights as a theme. Having the biographer of Wilberforce in charge of our foreign policy gave reassurance to human rights campaigners like me.

Over the past year, however, that emphasis has looked increasingly in doubt. The sacking of Alistair Burt in last year's reshuffle removed from the Foreign Office not only one of its most competent ministers, but also one of its ministers who clearly has a conscience. He pioneered the FCO's prioritisation of freedom of religion as a human rights concern. The resignation of Mr Hague himself in last month's reshuffle further dented confidence that foreign policy would pursue the course he had pledged in the speeches I had written for him eight years ago. And now Baroness Warsi's departure deprives the government of the only other FCO minister who has consistently and vocally championed human rights in foreign policy.

On her resignation itself, I am in two minds. I sympathise with her outrage at the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza, and - if her reasons for resigning can be taken at face value - I respect her taking a stand on principle. Of course the issue is complex: and I condemn Hamas' rockets and support Israel's right to defend itself. Nevertheless, the carnage and killing by Israel, indiscriminate and disproportionate, simply cannot be condoned. The issue is so polarised: I have friends who are pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian, Jewish and Muslim friends, and notably Palestinian friends who are caught in the middle. For the most thoughtful and balanced analysis, read my friend Todd Deatherage's blog, and Ari Shavit's excellent book.

I do however question the manner of her departure. I am surprised that she did not give the Prime Minister the normal courtesy of a personal conversation before announcing her resignation on Twitter. The timing seems strange, given that in recent days the rhetoric from the government has become more robust. Nevertheless, her departure is sad.

Baroness Warsi built on Alistair Burt's prioritisation of freedom of religion, giving personal leadership on the issue not only in Whitehall but internationally. Her Georgetown speech is well worth reading, as is her ensuing dialogue with Dr Thomas Farr, and her regular speeches in protest at the persecution of Christians, as a Muslim, were very helpful. She brought passion and profile to the cause.

With the departure of Burt, Hague and now Warsi, the FCO is left without any ministers who show any deep personal commitment to human rights. David Lidington was excellent when he held this responsibility in Opposition, but in government he is responsible for Europe. Hugo Swire has been robust on North Korea, which is very welcome and long overdue, but appears more preoccupied with trade in the rest of his brief. The failure to bring back Liam Fox, a strong champion of democracy and human rights in foreign policy whose book Rising Tides I reviewed here last year, undermines confidence that these themes will feature in foreign policy going forward.

It would be unfair to prejudge Philip Hammond and Baroness Anelay, Sayeeda Warsi's replacement, this early on. Instead, one must simply appeal to them to prove the sceptics wrong. Show us that our foreign policy is not in the hands of unimaginative bean-counters with a narrow preoccupation with Europe and trade. Articulate the values that will shape foreign policy. Go back and read William Hague's speeches made in Opposition, read New Ground, read the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission reports - and surprise us by returning to a robust emphasis on human rights at the heart of foreign policy, in the national interest. Otherwise, eleven years' work on my part may have been in vain.

Before You Go