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Labour must be consistent in its condemnation of human rights atrocities

4 min read

Ahead of today's Commons Opposition Day debate on Yemen, Conor McGinn writes for PoliticsHome warning that 'bankrupt thinking on the left' risk diminishing its commitment to human rights and the rule of law.  

Over the weekend airstrikes resumed over Aleppo, Syria and in Yemen as short, humanitarian ceasefires came to an end. For both civilian populations this is a desperate development that will undoubtedly bring further agonies and loss of life.

For most on the left our historic commitment to human rights, the rule of law and conflict prevention is something distinctive and a source of great pride. Passing by on the other side is not what we’re about. Part of that commitment must be, of course, the right to self-defence, and the right to use force to protect human life. Commitment to conflict prevention is not the pursuit of pacifism.

This was expressed most fully by Clement Attlee and Ernest Bevin through the foundation of NATO. Bevin, Britain’s post-war foreign secretary, brought together the countries of western Europe and the United States after the war to prevent another major conflagration and to stand up to the expansionist totalitarianism of the Soviet Union. And that pioneering Labour Government also played a key role in the creation of the United Nations and its security council, through which the Great Powers sought to mediate conflicts and to prevent war.

These institutions are the great symbols of our proud internationalist tradition and our commitment to cooperation between nations, motivated by a determination that the horrors of global war should not be visited on future generations.

We often rightly express our solidarity with those in peril in war, those oppressed by brutal dictators and those subjected to historic injustices.

This week in the Commons we are debating the situation in Yemen.  There have been allegations that UK-supplied armaments have been used to commit violations of international humanitarian law and that UK personnel are close to the Saudi-led coalition’s targeting decisions. These are serious allegations and merit scrutiny.

As it stands, Britain's export licensing regime is one of the most robust in the world and the Government insists that UK advisers are not part of the coalition forces per se but advise on how to comply with international humanitarian law. If that function and monitoring in particular was to be suspended then many worry it would remove the ability of the UK to influence the Saudis conduct in the conflict and help to bring the stalemate to an end.

So it is right to debate these important issues and constantly and consistently evaluate our relationship and engagement with Saudi Arabia, and other allies and partners in the region.

Sadly the problem for left, and Labour in particular, is that too often we have been seen to be picking and choosing whose actions to condemn and why, often for arbitrary reasons or because of ideological baggage. In so doing, our commitment to human rights and international law looks partial, inconsistent and, at times, politically motivated.

This week the French Ambassador to UN said “Aleppo is to Syria what Sarajevo was to Bosnia, or what Guernica was to the Spanish war,” and that “this week will go down in history as the one in which diplomacy failed and barbarism triumphed”. The British and American and French allies walked out of the Security Council as Syria justified its actions.

Yet some on the left have equated Russian atrocities against civilians in Aleppo with US and UK action against ISIL and also suggested that focus on Russia “diverts” attention from other atrocities.

There is no moral equivalence between the actions of Russia in Syria and the rules-based interventions against the murderous and barbarous group that styles itself Islamic State.

Such bankrupt thinking on the left, particularly in the Labour Party, will only diminish the very commitment to human rights and the rule of law that is our proud historic legacy, and undermine the international institutions that giants of our movement created in aftermath of the Second World War.

The world was a complicated and dangerous place then. It is arguably more so now. Attlee and Bevin stood in an internationalist tradition and acted in the national interest. That's not always the easiest thing to do, but it's always the Labour thing to do.

Conor McGinn is the Labour MP for St Helens and was a member of the Defence Select Committee.

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