Opinion: Ethical Foreign Policy


At a dinner in London last week to celebrate David Steel’s 50 years in Parliament Nick Clegg congratulated David on his internationalism and talked at length about the importance of our Party being the champion of internationalism and human rights.

In his final conference speech Nick said “we will stand up for tolerance, decency and fairness” but this was put in a domestic context.  Hopefully we will soon hear an election speech from Nick offering a Lib Dem foreign policy that will clearly differentiate us from the Tories and from the policies of the Blair/Brown years.

This is the speech I would like to see Nick deliver about ethical foreign policy:

“As we approach the general election we have a plethora of international crises and we find ourselves uncomfortably close to some rather undesirable regimes around the world.  Robin Cook’s attempt to frame an ethical foreign policy ended with his resignation over the distinctly unethical invasion of Iraq.  Britain’s support for that war was wrong and the devastating consequences are there for all to see.

Vladimir Putin is increasingly a tyrant in his own country, and towards Ukraine which he considers as a client state.  Britain will not go to war over Ukraine but, with EU allies, will continue to make life very uncomfortable for Putin if present aggression continues.

This principle of sanctions against the ringleaders in foreign aggression should be extended to egregious and systematic breaches of human rights in countries where we have political influence and close economic links.

Any strategic approach to Britain’s future international role must address the issue of which are our closest and most reliable partners.  The default position for successive British governments has been to follow Washington. This has made us very unpopular in the Middle East, as our invasion of Iraq and our reluctance to challenge Israel has shown.

An analysis of UN voting, by Professor Peter Ferdinand of Warwick University, has shown that between 1992 and 2008 the UK and France were aligned in UN Votes 95% of the time, but only about 70% with the US.  The US and the UK, as this suggests, have different priorities and interests, and different domestic constraints. The coalition’s foreign policy recognised that it is with France and Germany that we most often find common cause and this is likely to continue.  The absurd charade in the US Congress recently with the hero’s welcome for Benjamin Netanyahu and the blatant attempt to tornado negotiations with Iran, shows how far we are at odds with their values. We should loudly affirm our support for the negotiations with Iran and should furthermore lead our European partners in the recognition of the State of Palestine.

The growing economic interdependence with the Gulf states puts us uncomfortably close to Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain and Qatar – all of which in their different ways have appalling human rights records. We can’t avoid doing business with these countries but we should use the issue of visas and property ownership in the UK, which are so attractive to the ruling families and wealthy business people, to keep out those whose activities at home would clearly mark them out as criminal in this country.

When international human rights organisations highlight abuses in foreign countries, then that should become a reason for refusal of visas to the perpetrators and advocates. The prosecutors and the judge behind the case of Raif Badawi, the Saudi blogger, should be blacklisted for visas as should all Saudi clerics who go on record with intolerant statements about religious and political freedom.   Those responsible for the stripping of citizenship from people of wrong ethnicity in Abu Dhabi, for slave labour conditions in Qatar, for locking up political prisoners in Bahrain, and for seeking to execute gay people should be treated the same way.

And let’s look closely at Israel. For a state to settle its citizens in occupied territory is a breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention and those who live in civilian settlements established by Israel are complicit in war crimes.  Those who hold elected office in settlements, and who promote and authorise the demolition of Palestinian homes to make way for new settlements, should be banned from travel to this country and to the EU. Until Israel acknowledges – and enforces – Palestinian rights, it is in breach of Article 2 of its trade association agreement with the EU. So long as this situation continues, its trade privileges under that agreement should be suspended.

By actions such as these we can do our bit to advance human rights, return to the concept of an ethical foreign policy and restore our reputation in many parts of the world where it has suffered in recent years.”

All comments on this post will be pre-moderated.

* John Kelly is a member in Warwick District, Secretary of the Lib Dem Friends of Palestine, and a member of the Federal International Relations Committee.

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  • Eddie Sammon 16th Mar '15 - 3:37pm

    John Kelly writes an article on foreign policy and when he talks about our enemies he doesn’t mention ISIS, Boko Haram or Al-Qaeda, but Israel, Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain and Qatar.

    I don’t even know why this stuff gets published. We need an independent foreign policy and not to be unthinking friends to anyone. The only enemy he gets right is Russia, but I can’t see why the Russia-EU problems can’t be solved with a bit of self-determination. The empire builders from both sides need to back down.

  • Tsar Nicholas 16th Mar '15 - 5:29pm

    Putin increasingly a tyrant?

    Really, what is the evidence for this? The BBC, CNN and the Guardian no doubt, but it doesn’t explain his popularity within his own country.

    And as for Russian aggression – well, why not ask yourself who sponsored the overthrow of the democratically elected Yanokovic government in February of 2014? Why not start with the US Assistant US Secretary of State for European affairs Victoria Nuland? She openly discussed the replacement of Yanukovic with the US ambassador to Kiev Geoffrey Pyatt in a phone conversation days before it happened. the conversation has never been rebutted and is available for all to hear on Youtube.

    Why would ethnic Russians want to stay in a state that is run by a bunch of Nazis, complete with Nazi regalia and Nazi methods of ethnic cleansing, such as setting alight trade union buildings and shelling residential areas? Not because of Russian support, but because they simply want to defend their own lives and their families. If Russian aggression is the problem how come the tens of thousands of refugees have fled to Russia and not towards the west of the country?

    What is the problem with Liberal democrats that they can’t see past the Establishment propaganda?

  • Denis Mollison 16th Mar '15 - 9:34pm

    Eddie –

    We wouldn’t have ISIS, Boko Haram or Al-Qaeda as enemies – they almost certainly wouldn’t exist – if we hadn’t been b*******g up the Middle East for the last 100 years, in recent years compounded with befriending dodgy regimes such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain and Qatar.

    Tsar Nicholas (what’s in a name?) –

    There are indeed fascists in Ukraine, but far from a majority. And whatever the provocation, there is no justification for starting a war within Ukraine. Do you believe Putin’s transparent lies when he denies he heavy involvement of Russian troops in Ukraine?

  • Whilst I sympathise with efforts to make our foreign policy reflect our values I firstly would advise that Robin Cook’s framing of an “ethical foreign policy” has been demonstrably a failure and that we shouldn’t attempt New Labour Mark 2. Bringing in our values is about compromises with economic and other interests, rather than absolutes. I’d secondly advise that anyone closely associated with a highly partisan group not try pushing that agenda if you’re trying to actually build support for your idea.

    As for Tsar Nicolas. Yanukovych was “overthrown” by a democratic vote of Parliament according to the Ukrainian constitution after what was undeniably a Ukrainian popular uprising, including parts of the Ukrainan central govt itself. Ukraine is significantly less fascist than Russia (including the make-up of the Parliaments) and if you want to look for the cause of significant civic unrest in the country you might do worse than look to the civil war.

  • Jonathan Brown 16th Mar '15 - 10:59pm

    Given the need to keep to keep articles on LDV short and sweet, I think this is a commendable effort John.

    Of course ISIS, Boko Haram and Al-Qaida are enemies, but that’s not really a controversial point to make, or one that requires much of a change in attitude to the government’s position now.

    I think Abu Dhabi probably isn’t supposed to be singled out from the other emirates – Dubai also commits human rights abuses, and I suspect the others have similar restrictions on speech, political activity, etc. We’d have to think very carefully about how much and how quickly we placed restrictions upon investment by Gulf states and individuals in the UK too, but in principle I think it’s right that we be looking at targetted sanctions such as John suggests.

    Dennis Mollison makes the very obvious point that Russia is undoubtedly an aggressor in the Ukraine conflict, and it’s quite sad to see denials of the obvious here even if it’s true that no one comes out of this with an unblemished record.

  • Tsar Nicholas 16th Mar '15 - 11:59pm

    Denis Mollison

    “There are indeed fascists in Ukraine, but far from a majority. And whatever the provocation, there is no justification for starting a war within Ukraine. Do you believe Putin’s transparent lies when he denies he heavy involvement of Russian troops in Ukraine?”

    Senator Inhofe of Oklahoma recently introduced a measure into the senate to authorise lethal aid to Ukraine. He justified it by supplying to the Senate photographs of what he claimed were Russian tanks and troops in Ukraine. Only they weren’t. They were shown to be false. So if Putin is transparently lying and there are Russian tanks and troops in Ukraine why can’t the anti-Russians provide any evidence. after all, we live in the age of the selfie when every phone has a camera in it, sow hat’s the problem?


    “As for Tsar Nicolas. Yanukovych was “overthrown” by a democratic vote of Parliament according to the Ukrainian constitution after what was undeniably a Ukrainian popular uprising, including parts of the Ukrainan central govt itself. Ukraine is significantly less fascist than Russia (including the make-up of the Parliaments) and if you want to look for the cause of significant civic unrest in the country you might do worse than look to the civil war.”

    The Ukrainian constitution did not grant the Rada the power to remove an elected president and in any event many of its members were not present because like the President they had fled due to the violence.

    As for the civic unrest, I specifically draw your attention to the slaughter of ethnic Russians at the Odessa trade union building and to the fact that the Ukrainian government has been targeting civilian areas in east Ukraine with air bombing and artillery attacks. This constitutes a war crime. Why are you supporting such heinous acts?

    Also, do you deny that a phone conversation (readily findable on Youtube) between Mrs Nuland and Mr Pyatt took place prior to the overthow of Mr Yanukovic?

  • my piece wasn’t about our enemies – I didn’t mention the word once. It was primarily about our ” friends”. We cosy up to some pretty unpleasant governments some of which commit serious human rights abuses and some are in flagrant breach of international law. We are “punishing” selected Russians and I am suggesting we should extend the policy to selected individuals in other countries e.g. when they apply for visas.

  • Tony Rowan-Wicks 17th Mar '15 - 2:39pm

    Thanks John, no-one has mentioned the lack of human rights by an increasing number of Commonwealth countries. What is our foreign office saying to Presidents and others, and saying it publicly, concerning the arrest of opposition members in various states. If nothing is being said in diplomatic circles can we wonder why the ideals of the Commonwealth are breaking down. Remaining silent is surely taken as weakness on the part of our government and allows free speech and the domocratic process to be further eroded.

  • Tony. Good point. I had only mentioned Uganda as a Commonwealth Country and it is not the only example. It was interesting today to read in the Independent that Margot Wallström the Swedish Foreign Minister has been striving to follow an ethical foreign policy and has been upsetting the Saudi and Israeli governments and some Swedish business leaders in the process. She could do with some moral support from the UK.

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