Promoting open societies abroad while restricting rights at home in the UK
19 April 2021
Action to protect human rights, strengthen democracy and support civil society globally has never been more needed.
Open societies were already under pressure from authoritarianism, corruption, securitisation, discrimination and disinformation before Covid-19. The pandemic has exacerbated the situation in many countries, resulting in greater restrictions on basic rights and freedoms.
The UK government is prioritising efforts to promote open societies globally, but it needs to demonstrate that it is an exception to this trend if it is to have any legitimacy championing human rights and transparency around the world.
Despite a strong focus on open societies in the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, on the day it was published, it was revealed that the UK government was cutting spending on human rights and open societies by up to 80% and Parliament moved ahead with controversial plans to restrict the right to protest in the UK through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.
As an issue often presented as a priority for the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office, promoting open societies will feature prominently at the G7 in Cornwall this year. However, questions are being asked by those in the human rights sector and beyond about whether the UK can stand up for fundamental freedoms globally and persuade other leading economies to do the same, whilst slashing spending and restricting rights at home.
The UK government needs to walk the talk on open societies. This requires both development and diplomatic interventions and is where the merger of the UK's foreign policy and development departments could deliver real results.
This is particularly true when it comes to protecting human rights defenders and local civil society activists. The UK government's Integrated Review contains a commitment to work with these groups to promote democratic values and to defend universal human rights. If you ask human rights defenders how the UK government can help them do this, as this recent report did, they will say by increasing funding, rather than decreasing it.
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Access to emergency funds can provide a lifeline to activists when they need it most, while long term, flexible funding enables them to build their resilience in the face of restrictions and discrimination and be more innovative and effective.
This funding must be accompanied by diplomatic support from the government for civil society groups, such as working with states to create supportive legal and regulatory frameworks for civil society or issuing public statements condemning restrictions in-country or at the UN.
The UK government can also provide practical help, such as negotiating exit permits and securing fast-track visas or widening access to security training and 'rest and respite' schemes so that activists can escape the pressures of working in a hostile environment at least temporarily, meet with others doing similar work elsewhere in the world and learn new skills which will help them stay safe and increase their impact.
There are many examples from around the world where the UK government has stepped up and provided activists with the support they need, whether that is publicly condemning attacks on civil society or backing human rights defenders in more subtle ways. But its stated ambition to do more to promote democracy and protect human rights worldwide is at risk of being undermined, particularly by cuts to the Official Development Assistance budget.
Work to protect individuals like civil society activists, journalists, and human rights defenders, and the organisations and institutions that make up civil society needs to be properly resourced if it is to be effective.
Cutting funding on human rights and open societies by up to 80% at a time when the UK is seeking to champion these issues globally harms our credibility. While new restrictions on protest in the UK, currently being considered by Parliament as part of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, will damage our legitimacy to challenge other countries seeking to clampdown on freedom of assembly.
As one human rights activist from East Asia recently pointed out on a call ahead of the C7 summit taking place this week, "how can the UK expect anyone to take them seriously when they are saying one thing and doing another?”
Our credibility and legitimacy are essential assets when it comes to promoting positive change globally. Domestic actions should bolster rather than damage our ability to champion open and democratic societies around the world, including at this year’s G7 Summit. The UK Government apparently know this too. In the governments Integrated Review, it states that "efforts to reverse this decline in global freedom must start at home". On this, I couldn't agree more. Now we just need to do it.