We probably shouldn’t be surprised at the news that the Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office has declared that the ‘prosperity agenda’ is now more important than human rights in British foreign policy. We’re the country that hosts DSEI every year, after all, where it’s the weight of your wallet rather than your conscience that gets you attendance. Meanwhile, selling weapons to one of the world’s most repressive theocracies – a country actively encouraging wars in the Middle East – is worth more than a billion pounds a year, so we’re all somewhat aware that our supposedly ethical foreign policy is anything but.
It’s rare for someone – especially a higher-up in a department known for communicating through nuance – to be so blatant about admitting the truth, though. Our governments like to cling to the fig leaf that while we might be doing things that, when looked at from a certain angle, could appear to be somewhat bad, we’re doing them for entirely the right reasons and any negative side effects were regrettable but shouldn’t be allowed to distract from the useful process of engagement that these deals facilitated. The one restraint on the amorality of full-blown realpolitik was the need for it to be able to don a convincing human face afterwards to explain away its consequences.
But why should we be concerned with a little honesty about our foreign policy? It’s not as if Britain using military and diplomatic strength to secure dodgy trade deals is anything new, is it? Aren’t we just admitting the Augustinian nature – please make it ethical, just not yet – of our previous stances?
There are two problems with it. First, even if we never fulfilled our stated aims, I’d rather fail to reach a noble goal than not even attempt it and second, it shows just what contempt this government has for the concept of human rights. You can be sure that a civil servant wouldn’t be talking about their relative unimportance unless that was the signal being sent down from on high, but this government’s issue with human rights isn’t one of indifference, it’s active antipathy.
This is a government that’s talked about replacing international charters of rights with specifically British ones. The point of human rights is that they belong as of right to everyone, not just those who happen to be on a certain group of islands at a certain time, and replacing human rights with British rights abandons that, even before you consider that this is a government happy to strip people of citizenship and leave them stateless. Now, add to that the revelation that the Government considers the ‘prosperity agenda’ to be of much more importance than human rights, and you start to wonder just what their ‘British Bill of Rights’ might contain. If you can limit by geography and accident of birth, why not make everything conditional on not threatening anyone’s ‘prosperity’ too?
No, that would be entirely too ridiculous. It wouldn’t be anyone’s prosperity that would be protected, only those already doing well. After all, if trade is more important than human rights, maybe the only rights we’ll have will be the ones we can afford to buy? The quality of justice you receive is now determined by how much you’re able to pay for it, so the precedent’s there.
More and more, it feels like we’re living in the early days of a pariah nation. Worried yet?
(story and image via Barney Farmer on Twitter)