16 September 2021

What are Liz Truss’ top priorities as Foreign Secretary?

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It won’t have escaped Liz Truss’ notice that she was appointed Foreign Secretary on the International Day of Democracy, and Battle of Britain Day.  At a time when authoritarianism is on the rise and democracy is under the greatest assault since the Cold War, the values of liberty, human rights and the rule of law should infuse her approach.

Her in-box is crammed: from the Taliban to repairing the ‘Special Relationship’ to preparing for the UN General Assembly, from watching forthcoming elections in Germany and Canada to restoring credibility to the ‘Global Britain’ slogan following aid cuts and the fiasco of our withdrawal from Afghanistan.

But in addition to these key issues, there are four which I propose should be top priorities.

The first is a comprehensive, radical review of UK-China relations, as proposed by the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission in its report, The Darkness Deepens, earlier this year. I hope this report – which I was told on good authority Dominic Raab read in detail – will be priority reading for the new Foreign Secretary, along with recent reports by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee and the House of Lords International Relations Committee.

Over the past couple of years the Government has taken what the last Governor of Hong Kong Chris Patten has called a ‘cakeist’ approach. It has strengthened its rhetoric, while quietly winking to Beijing that it’s business as usual. It has called out the persecution of the Uyghurs and the dismantling of Hong Kong’s democracy, while signalling that it wants to increase trade ties. It has slapped a few Magnitsky sanctions on some Chinese Communist Party officials and entities responsible for the atrocity crimes in Xinjiang, while failing to sanction the primary architect of the repression, Xinjiang’s Party Secretary Chen Quangguo. It has paid lip-service to condemnation of what Dominic Raab termed ‘industrial-scale’ slavery, while doing little to stop it. It has led resolutions at the UN condemning China’s human rights record, while vigorously opposing an amendment in Parliament to empower our courts to determine genocide. All this is a welcome change from the so-called “Golden Era” of kowtowing to Beijing under David Cameron’s government, but it does not go anything like far enough.

The new Foreign Secretary’s track record gives cause for optimism that there may be a new approach. As my friend and colleague Luke de Pulford describes in the Daily Telegraph, as Trade Secretary Ms Truss was ‘wonderfully lacklustre’ in her opposition to the genocide amendment to the Trade Bill – perhaps an indication that she sympathised with it. She has long indicated the right instincts on China. Let’s hope she goes with her instincts and turns rhetoric into policy, with a more robust and clear-headed policy on China.

Mr Raab deserves great credit for two policies: Magnitsky sanctions and the British National Overseas (BNO) visa scheme for Hongkongers. As a backbencher he led the movement for Magnitsky Sanctions legislation, and as Foreign Secretary he enacted this new human rights sanctions regime. And, the very day the Chinese regime imposed the draconian National Security Law on Hong Kong, he threw a very generous lifeline to Hongkongers who need to flee the city.

Ms Truss should build on this by using the Magnitsky sanctions mechanism created by her predecessor against those responsible for dismantling Hong Kong’s freedoms. One of her first acts at the FCO should be to sanction officials in Beijing and Hong Kong, starting with Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam. And move from there to a total recalibration of our relations with China’s mendacious, criminal regime.

Item number two in Ms Truss’ inbox: Myanmar. 

It is outrageous that there has not been more outcry, or action, from the international community in response to the human rights and humanitarian crisis caused by the military coup on 1 February. 

In the past seven months alone, over 1,000 people have been killed, more than 8,000 arrested, over 6,500 currently in jail and nearly 2,000 more facing arrest warrants. Myanmar’s military overthrew a democratically-elected, legitimate government, reversed a decade of fragile democratisation and plunged the country back into brutal dictatorship. 

Worse, the junta has precipitated a civil war that has caused a humanitarian crisis, and – through its persecution of doctors and nurses and stealing oxygen and vaccines – caused Covid-19 to run rampant throughout the country. 

Myanmar is teetering on the brink of being a failed state, with implications for the region and the world if civil war and Covid are allowed to spill out in the form of refugee outflows. Britain must make it a priority to hobble the military regime – by coordinating the toughest possible targeted global sanctions, arms embargoes and diplomatic pressure – and at the same time provide a lifeline to the people of Myanmar.

The third item: North Korea. Three days ago, North Korea tested its new long-range cruise missile. Ms Truss will want to speak soon to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other allies, to coordinate our response. But the human rights crisis in the world’s most closed country should always remain part of the picture. In 2014 the UN Commission of Inquiry into human rights in North Korea  published their damning report, which concluded that Kim Jong-Un’s regime is committing crimes against humanity, the ‘gravity, scale and nature’ of which ‘reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world’. Yet almost nothing has been done. That report sits gathering dust on a shelf. Ms Truss should take it off the shelf, shake off the dust and lead a global movement to put the UN inquiry recommendations into action.

Finally, Ms Truss’ predecessor but one, Jeremy Hunt, pioneered the prioritisation of media and religious freedom as Foreign Office campaigns. William Hague as Foreign Secretary made tackling sexual violence in conflict a priority, and Boris Johnson focused on education for woman and girls.

These four issues should absolutely be a priority. Any decent, humane, free and open society is one where journalists are free to investigate and report the truth, people are free to choose, practice and change their religion without fear, and women are free to live their lives without fear of attack and with access to education. As only the second woman to hold this role, and combining it with the Women and Equalities brief, Ms Truss is sure to be acutely aware of these issue.

Those initiatives by three of her predecessors, combined with Mr Raab’s legacy of Magnitsky sanctions, should form the bedrock of British foreign policy from now on. I wish her well in taking up this role at this immensely challenging time – and urge her to show courage and leadership in advancing what is right.

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Benedict Rogers is the co-founder and Chief Executive of Hong Kong Watch, co-founder and Deputy Chair of the UK Conservative Party Human Rights Commission.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.