Jeremy Browne writes… Human rights, six months in

Last week at the UN, 107 countries voted for a worldwide moratorium on the use of the death penalty. The UK led the international lobbying effort and provided strong encouragement to countries such as Mongolia, who voted for the moratorium for the first time.

This was a very encouraging result and part of a wider international movement towards global abolition. It is clear in my mind that the death penalty is no deterrent to criminals, it can never be reversed and it is a denial of the liberal sanctity of the individual. It is the UK’s unwavering aim to try and eliminate the use of capital punishment worldwide.

But 58 states across the globe still retain the death penalty, so we do have to be realistic about the resistance we face.

When I set out the coalition’s plan to work towards global abolition last month, I emphasised the absolute necessity of attempting to make real progress across the board, not just in countries that are inclined already to be better disposed towards our position.

Where resistance is strongest, for example, we are arguing for reductions in the number of offences to which the death penalty applies (the UK recently provided the backing for successful legal challenges in Kenya, Barbados and Uganda to prevent its mandatory imposition), for the exclusion of juveniles, pregnant women and the mentally ill, and for the right to fair trial and appeal to be strengthened. And where there is an appetite for more positive change, we are supporting states to move to moratorium with a view to a complete ban in the long-term.

The coalition is embedding human rights at the core of our foreign policy in other ways as well.

One of the first initiatives we undertook was to secure an independent inquiry into allegations of complicity in the torture of terror suspects. At the Foreign Office, we have been at pains to stress that the UK cannot and will not seek to separate human rights from our foreign policy priorities. The inquiry is absolutely necessary to rebuild our moral authority in all our bilateral and multilateral relationships.

The UK has also been unequivocally leading the fight for democracy in Burma. Only last month at the EU-Asia summit, Nick Clegg and I demanded the release of all prisoners of conscience and for meaningful engagement to be undertaken by the regime with all opposition and ethnic groups. The release of Aung San Suu Kyi, though welcome, was immediately preceded by a sham election designed to retain the dictatorship and renounce meaningful democracy. Her release must be followed by genuine dialogue and further prisoner releases for it to constitute real change for the people of Burma and we continue to press urgently and forcefully for more progress.

Elsewhere, we are advancing the defence of freedom of expression through the internet. It is such a powerful tool for liberalising societies that would otherwise remain closed. To countries like the UK, the internet is a facilitator of discussion, debate and disagreement, and we are very comfortable with that. Authoritarian countries are inclined to inhibit their citizens’ right to expression, so we are working with providers like Facebook and Google, as well as likeminded countries, to promote international standards on internet access and freedom of expression.

And in the last fortnight, we have invited 13 eminent individuals to form an independent group that will advise the Foreign Office on human rights. Its members include NGO leaders as well as prominent legal experts who can be guaranteed to further enhance our policy in this area.

The freedom of people around the world is an instinctive cause for all Liberal Democrats and these are just some of the ways we have been promoting a liberal human rights agenda in the Foreign Office in our first six months.

Jeremy Browne is Minister of State at the Foreign Office

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19 Comments

  • Do you think a Government should be able to place people under house arrest, move them about a country, and then tell them they were innocent years later without ever giving a reason or even given them the slightest accusation which they can refute?

  • What about the human right not to be murdered by criminals? If countries think that the death penalty is a necessary deterrent to protect their citizens I have no problem with this in principle. Disappointing that it seems to be at the top of Jeremy’s agenda.

  • Paul W, this does in essence come down to the adage that ‘two wrongs don’t make a right’. The human right not to be killed (by anyone – I don’t get your tautologuical use of the word ‘criminal’ here) does not justify a state, government, collective group, mob, society or business making a judgment to execute someone retrospectively.

    Surely a key element of liberalism is the awareness that you are sometimes wrong, and that is incompatible with execution, which is irreversible.

    As for justifications of deterence, based on a retrospective reason (namely the guilt of an individual), this is a
    dangerous argument, jumping to a consequentialist justification from a question of justice/factual guilt.

  • Andrew Wimble 19th Nov '10 - 11:50am

    I think we have a way to go yet before it can be said that we are comfortable with the internet as a “facilitator of discussion, debate and disagreement”. It is hard to have a true debate when you can face libel actions for what most reasonable people would say is fair criticism, or be subect to criminal sactions if you go too far in critisizing religious practices that you object to, or for that matter when you can end up with a criminal conviction for a bad taste joke on Twitter.

  • David Cameron let slip yesterday that he thought overseas aid should be re-directed to conflict prevention instead.

    What’s happening to the aid budget, then?

  • Jeremy is presumably aware of the uncomfortable fact that most Tories (the people in charge of this so-called “coalition” government) are very strongly in favour of the death penalty.

    Does he remember the unseemly stampede of politicians of all parties falling over each other to grovel to Saudi Arabia when the BBC screened “Death of a Princess”? Would Jeremy have had more mettle? I’m sure Clegg wouldn’t.

  • All the time the U.S. fails to agree/ratify international conventions, other less powerful countries will simply justify their own postion against the US benchmark.

    Might be better to start with our own ‘friends.’

  • Totally agree with all the policies outlined here.

    However, I’m not sure that this can be taken as proof of a liberlising of the agenda in this area. I can’t see anything in the list that does not have broad cross party support. Complicity with torture is a possibel exception although I think this was already being addressed by the last Government (despite their previous “dubious” record).

  • Interesting that you boast about achievements abroad while continuing the disgraceful Labour practice of locking up children at home.

  • Paul McKeown 19th Nov '10 - 7:08pm

    Well done, Jeremy, thank you. Keep up the good work, promoting liberal and democratic views in government, in Parliament and in our country’s foreign policy. I understand that it must currently be depressing at times for Liberal Democrat MPs and Minister, faced by a deluge of often ill informed criticism, but keep the chin up and keep working hard. Great work, the death penalty is one issue that really makes my blood boil when it raises its ugly head, so thanks!

  • Sesenco: What is the evidence for your assertion that “most Tories…are very strongly in favour of the death penalty”?

  • Alex Sabine,

    Not having been born on 22nd November 2010. Next?

  • Sorry, I’ll correct that. Not having been born on 19th November 2010!

    Alex Sabine, who clearly thinks the Tory Party is some benign force sitting in the clouds, should look at the results of numerous votes that have been held at Tory Party conferences over the years. In my experience, it is actually quite difficult to find a Tory who doesn’t support the death penalty!

    I guess if Clegg says the Tory Party is wonderful, it has to be so.

  • Oh, and Jeremy’s immediate boss is a supporter of the death penalty!

    http://www.thefreelibrary.com/HANG+'EM+HAGUE%3B+Mass+executioner+Bush+has+got+it+right,+says+Tory…-a072206220

  • @Alex Sabine

    The most recent evidence is last month, when the Tories voted against an end to the death penalty in the European Parliament

  • @Alex Sabine

    Even the great libertarian David Davis is a supporter of the death penalty.

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