The Shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague spoke at the launch of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission’s First Annual Report at on the 11th December 2007, in the Jubilee Room, House of Commons:

Thank you for joining us here today for the launch of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission’s first Annual Report.

It is a pleasure to see so many people present, including representatives of international embassies, colleagues from the Conservative Party, and representatives of organisations working tirelessly to champion human rights across the globe.  Some people present may even be victims of human rights violations – from some of the very countries documented in the report.

You are all most welcome.

It is particularly timely that we should be launching this report today, as yesterday was the 58th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Declaration enshrines some of the most basic freedoms which sometimes in our country we take for granted: freedom of speech, religion, assembly and movement.

Article 1 - “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” – is a reminder that human rights do not apply solely to the Western world, nor do they reflect standards from which particular cultures or religions can choose to opt out. They exist to protect people everywhere.

It is in accordance with this basic principle that we established the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission in October 2005.

The publication of the Commission’s first Annual Report is a landmark in the work we hope to do to raise awareness of human rights abuses worldwide, and to provide a voice for persecuted and oppressed people. It is also a vital part of the Conservative Party’s preparation for government.

Democracy, the rule of law, the freedom to speak one’s mind, to congregate, to worship, and to move freely – all these are non-existent in many countries today.

It is terrible indictments of the world today that in so many countries, people do not enjoy those freedoms.

In place of these fundamental rights, many experience subjugation and violence in terrible forms – such as

  • The killing and torture of civilians and the displacement of up to 25,000 villagers in Burma’s Karen district in the course of 2006 alone;

  • The 200,000 political prisoners incarcerated in North Korea’s jails, who are the victims of a regime which is known to arbitrarily imprison up to three generations for the transgression of a single individual [1]; 

  • The victims of the Iranian regime, which as late as 2005 continued to execute children and juvenile offenders, and which retains floggings, stonings and amputations on its statute books.
  • Or the thousands of victims of rape and ethnic cleansing in Darfur, where, as I visited refugee camps, I heard tales of suffering and saw scenes of poverty and degradation that I will never forget.

Despite the cost to themselves many brave individuals are prepared to endure great hardship in pursuit of freedom for their people. I can think of two I have met this year:

Alexander Milinkevich, the opposition leader in Belarus, who bravely contested the recent presidential elections, which were described by the OSCE as “severely flawed due to the arbitrary use of state power and restrictions on basic rights to vote”, despite the violence and intimidation meted out by the state;

And Zoya Phan, a young Burmese human rights activist who spoke so powerfully at our Party Conference this year. She described how, when she was 14, her village was attacked by the Burma Army and she was forced to flee. She asked why it had taken the UN Security Council 16 years to even discuss Burma.

Today, I want to reiterate the pledge I have already made – to put respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms at the very heart of Conservative foreign policy.

Human rights are not the only consideration in forming a nation’s foreign policy. Other issues should and do inform our thinking: trade, terrorism, trans-national crime, epidemics and numerous other challenges.

However, as Shadow Foreign Secretary, I believe that we must conduct our foreign policy in a way that does not deviate from our values; central to which is a deeply-held belief in the primacy and inviolability of individual human rights.

This involves conveying our concerns about human rights as and when they arise with all countries –whether they are our oldest and staunchest allies, authoritarian regimes, or emerging democracies.

In the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, quoted in this report;

I remember people saying about South Africa and apartheid that it is an internal affair how they deal with their own citizens. There are certain internal policies about which, yes, that is true, but there are other internal policies which are an affront to the world … There are no frontiers in human rights. If a government treats its people as if they were rubbish, this cannot any longer be an internal affair.”

Indeed with many countries it is a testament to the strength our relationship that we are able to work together on such issues –

Whether it is dialogue with our American allies on ways we can approach the complexities of the struggle against international terrorism while upholding the rule of law,

Or raising our concerns with India - the world’s largest democracy, with a great and long tradition of respect for freedom of speech - about the treatment of 250 million Dalits and tribal groups as so-called “untouchables”.

The Commission’s Report details human rights abuses in 18 countries which the Commission has been monitoring this year. Gary Streeter will say more about this shortly.

The Commission has put forward 12 specific policy recommendations, which I will consider carefully as we develop our ideas for a future Conservative Government.

Of course several years before a general election it is too early to say how we will change the FCO – however the ideas of the Commission are ones that we will give close consideration too, including:

  • Ways to raise the level of priority given to the promotion of human rights in foreign policy, including political and practical support for indigenous non-violent pro-democracy and human rights organisations 

  • Ways to pursue tougher diplomacy against regimes persisting in violating human rights, including sanctions

  • A review of the arms trade and reform of the United Nations

These are all valuable contributions to our ongoing policy review process.

I am pleased that the Commission will now engage in a substantive consultation with human rights experts, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and others, to develop further, more detailed ideas for how we can in Government promote human rights and democracy around the world.

In just a few months we will be marking the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade in the United Kingdom – a campaign led by that great Parliamentarian, William Wilberforce.

While we celebrate Wilberforce’s life, example and legacy, we should remember that his work is not finished – for slavery – in the form of human trafficking, forced labour, bonded labour, child labour, the forcible conscription of child soldiers and sexual slavery – remains widespread in too many countries in the world today.

Today, I want to say to the people of Burma, Sudan, North Korea, Uzbekistan, Eritrea and the many other countries where freedom is trampled on, basic human dignity is defiled and justice may seem but a distant hope, that the Conservative Party is absolutely committed to doing everything in our power to change your situation.

This Annual Report is just the very beginning. I congratulate Gary Streeter and the Commission on the work they have begun. But they know, as I do, that there is much more to do – and that as David Cameron has said, we must promote the values of human dignity, personal freedom and national self-determination in a way that is consistent and honourable.

We must be willing to defend human rights everywhere, to challenge friends and foes alike to uphold these values, and to keep going until the task is complete. I commend this Annual Report to you; I hope you will take this opportunity to engage with us to develop a foreign policy that promotes human rights and freedom; and I hope that for the prisoners, the refugees, the displaced people, the freedom fighters around the world, this report might give some flicker of hope through the knowledge that we stand with them.

Download Conservative Party Human Rights Commission First Annual Report (PDF)