A return to ethical foreign policy

"A future Labour Government could create a lasting legacy where the UK is able to lead on the resolution of humanitarian issues"

In the run up to the 2017 General Election, Emily Thornberry promised to return to the “ethical foreign policy” espoused by Robin Cook as Foreign Secretary in Tony Blair’s New Labour Government. Labour’s manifesto from the 2017 Election, “For the Many, Not the Few”, placed “peace, universal rights and international law” at the heart of Labour’s Foreign Policy. Indeed, the commitments in this manifesto demonstrate a radical return to the Cook Doctrine of “ethical foreign policy”. Commitments made within the manifesto include: supporting negotiations within conflict zones – such as Israel and Palestine, Kashmir, and the Korean Peninsula; ending the complicity of UK Forces in human rights abuses by ceasing the training of soldiers from countries with poor human rights records, and stopping selling arms to these countries; and making a pledge to stand up to the United States on the international stage, noting that whilst they are one of our closest allies, too often British foreign policy failures have been the result of blindly following the United States into action.

However, the Manifesto does not go far enough in respect of outlining the practical policies that the UK could follow to achieve the goal of maintaining peace, universal rights and international law. To this end, this article looks to what could be done by a future Labour Government to realise this commitment. This, in turn, would lend credence to the UK’s presence as an influential nation on the world stage; the UK, in asserting its commitment to “ethical foreign policy”, may demonstrate (and assert) its ability to define and defend its values. As a result, the UK reassumes its natural international role –   one of promoting peace, stability and security through the advocacy of international human rights. 

This position is reminiscent of the UK’s role following the end of the Second World War: a permanent member of the UN Security Council, instrumental in the creation of the first international human rights treaty, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948. . The main remedy to this would be to legislate a commitment from the UK to act within the UN’s Responsibility to Protect mechanism, which provides legal basis for humanitarian intervention and for the UK itself to act to protect human rights if the international community is unable or unwilling to act due to conflicts in strategic goals. 

One way to enact this, proposed by the late Jo Cox MP in her piece “A New Progressive Internationalism”, published by the Fabian Society as part of “Outward to the World” in 2015, would be the establishment of an independent commission to assess international incidents and crises, to advise if the UK needs to act, either through aid, peacekeeping or military intervention. The United States has established a similar group, the Atrocity Prevention Board, set up by President Obama to assess the risks of atrocities and strategize policy to mitigate or prevent these incidents. By creating an independent commission, bringing together academics, legal advisors, policy advisors and specialists who can then report to the Foreign Office, or directly to Parliament, a future Labour Government could create a lasting legacy where the UK is able to lead on the resolution of humanitarian issues. Primarily, this may be realised through its role within the UN where this position may be used to increase the UK’s influence on other nations and take the lead on other policies, such as: arms embargoes; increasing commitments to UN Peacekeeping forces from G7 nations; and restrictions on training the armies of human rights abusers, in order to help facilitate the heart of our foreign policy being peace, human rights and international law.


Joshua Charters is a Young Fabian member in Manchester. Follow him on Twitter at @joshy2209

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