Ethical foreign policy and recognising genocide

When the Labour Party swept to power in 1997, their foreign secretary, Robin Cook, took just two weeks to announce a major shift in how the government would approach foreign policy. After nearly two decades out of power, he said: Our foreign policy must have an ethical dimension and must support the demands of other peoples for the democratic rights on which we insist for ourselves. … The Labour government will put human rights at the heart of our foreign policy.”

This was a fundamental shift in rhetoric as foreign policy had traditionally been about exerting national influence overseas. The shift in approach was visible in the intervention in Kosovo in 1999, justifying military action on humanitarian grounds rather than self-interest. Following the 9/11 attacks on the US, Tony Blair told the Labour Party conference that this approach would apply across the globe: And I tell you if Rwanda happened again today as it did in 1993, when a million people were slaughtered in cold blood, we would have a moral duty to act there also.”

This is not to pass judgement on whether Blair’s government pursued an ethical foreign policy; that debate will forever be entangled in whether the invasion of Iraq was justified. Rather, this is to pose the question: what are the prospects of an ethical foreign policy in the years to come, as the UK embarks on a new era of foreign policy outside of the EU?


Hong Kong

The opening of a new visa route for people in Hong Kong who have British national (overseas) citizenship, and their families, evidences a more ethical foreign policy. This is in light of the increasing suppression of human rights and democracy in Hong Kong and recognition of the UK’s historic involvement in that region.

This scheme, which opens at the end of January 2021, could see 300 – 600,000 people take up residency in the UK, which after five years provides a path to full citizenship. A key argument made in favour of leaving the EU was that it would enable the UK to have more control over its immigration policy; however, this move, and all others applying to non-EU nationals, are unaffected by Brexit. 

If churches wish to consider how they can help welcome this potential new set of arrivals, there is an online event on 28 January called Hong Kong Ready Churches which you can attend. You can find out more and book here.

Uyghur people

In a post-Brexit world the UK’s most significant foreign policy moves are trade deals that are being reached and discussed with countries around the world. While the trade deal with the EU that marked the end of the transition period has received the most attention, deals with countries across the globe are what could define UK policy for years to come. 

In the Trade Bill, which is currently before parliament, the Government has repeatedly refused to accept an amendment to facilitate domestic definitions of genocide overseas. This is an important issue. Taking the Chinese treatment of the Uyghur people as a key example, at present designations of genocide can only be reached through the UN, where China would veto any such decision, or the International Criminal Court, which China is not a party to. 

The proposed amendment was rejected by the House of Commons after being backed in the House of Lords, but will return in a revised format in the coming weeks. The proposed amendment would enable the High Court to make such a determination (designate an event or events as genocide) regarding a nation with which the UK is reaching a trade deal. Such a determination would then spark a debate in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, calling on the Government to take action relating to the trade deal.

More broadly, the trade deals that the UK is reaching provide an opportunity to place ethical foreign policy front and centre. This kind of foreign policy has long existed more in rhetoric than reality, whether with countries that persecute religious minorities or supress human rights and democracy. It is a challenge for whether ethics and morality in foreign policy concerns become subservient to economic prosperity and free trade.