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Hague: Freedom, justice and human rights

Speech to the Conservative Human Rights Commission

"In a few minutes, we will hear from a heroine in the fight for freedom: A young woman who has seen, day after day, the suffering of her own people at the hands of one of the world's most brutal regimes and who has bravely chosen to speak out.

Four years ago and while only 20, Charm Tong set up a unique school in northern Thailand to train a new generation of human rights activists. She is also a founding member of the widely respected Shan Women's Action Network (SWAN), whose meticulous reports have documented atrocities perpetrated against women by Burmese soldiers

Today, I want to say to Charm Tong, that the Conservative Party stands with her. We have much to learn from her experience and are grateful that she is with us today.

Human rights abuses in the 21st century cannot be tolerated. Yet across the world unjust imprisonment, detention without trial, and torture continue to be seen. In countries as varied as North Korea, Turkmenistan, Eritrea, the Sudan and Belarus, serious human rights abuses are occurring. Recently I was in Darfur, where I saw for myself the tragic consequences of ethnic cleansing which continues almost unchecked before the eyes of the international community.

Human rights do not apply solely to the Western world, nor do they reflect standards from which particular cultures or religions can choose to opt out. They exist to protect people everywhere against political, legal, and social abuses.

It is in accordance with this basic principle that we have established the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission. In doing so, we hope to convey several fundamental messages:

• To dissidents, activists and brave people around the world who continue to struggle for democracy, freedom and human rights in their own countries, we want to say: we are on your side.

• To the victims of state-sponsored violence in its many forms again we say: we are on your side.

• To regimes that terrorize their own people, we must say: your behaviour is unacceptable and we will do all we possibly can to stop it.

• To the international community, including our own Government, we say: when you act to stop these crimes against humanity, we will support you. But when you drag your feet or look away, we will not stay silent.

• And to the people of our own country, we must say: these issues matter. Slavery, murder, rape and torture are wrong, and we have a moral obligation to speak out and act.

Speaking as Shadow Foreign Secretary, I believe that we must conduct our foreign policy in a way that does not deviate from our values; central to which is a deeply-held belief in the primacy and inviolability of individual human rights.

Our foreign policy must be pro-active in supporting democracy and those who bravely champion freedom in their own countries. It must put economic and political pressure on brutal regimes, and it must seek to hold them to account.

The abuses and violence that have taken place in Zimbabwe in the context of land occupations; the profound human rights and humanitarian crisis endured by Burma's ethnic minority communities, and further repression in Belarus, cannot be ignored.

Not only is it right to champion freedom, justice and human rights, it is also in our national interests to do so. It has become increasingly clear in recent years that dictators do not make good partners - politically, commercially or strategically. They sow instability, reek of corruption, and threaten their own people.

The Conservative Party Human Rights Commission will work to inform the policy debate, and its members will also be the grassroots activists and campaigners within our party. About 30 Conservatives took part in a demonstration outside the Belarusian embassy in protest against the highly flawed conduct of the recent elections there. And we hope there will be more such action to come - protests, candlelit vigils, demonstrations, petitions - initiated and led by Conservatives.

Today, the Commission has held the first of its hearings - on Burma. I can think of no better country to start our work with than Burma - a nation ruled by one of the world's worst regimes, an illegal military junta. A nation where the legitimate elected representatives of the people are locked up, where the Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi remains under house arrest, where a million people are internally displaced, thousands of villages destroyed, where women are raped at gunpoint, and thousands used for forced labour. A nation with the highest number of forcibly conscripted child soldiers in the world.

Last year, the former Czech President Vaclav Havel, and the former Archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu, commissioned a law firm to examine the case for bringing the issue of Burma to the agenda of the UN Security Council. The report, Threat to the Peace, was published. Its conclusions were damning. Of all the major criteria for bringing a country to the Security Council, Burma is the only country in recent years that without a doubt meets them all. While a preliminary discussion took place before Christmas, the Security Council has still not formally considered the issue of Burma, or debated a resolution against the regime. Soon after Threat to the Peace was published, the Conservative Party backed its recommendations and urged the British Government to support it. I am pleased to say the United Kingdom did, in the end, support the initiative and I will continue to urge the government to maintain this momentum and to work with our allies to get the issue of Burma raised at the Security Council, and a resolution passed.

Over the coming months, the Commission will hold a series of hearings on different countries and themes. It will gather evidence, produce reports, ask questions in Parliament and begin to develop ideas for how a future Conservative Government can put the promotion of democracy, freedom and human rights at the heart of its foreign policy. It will look, for example, at the role of our diplomatic service; and it will publish an Annual Report, highlighting violations around the world, holding our Government to account for what it has done to address these concerns.

In the words of William Wilberforce, that great Parliamentarian who almost single-handedly brought about the end of the slave trade in Britain, we must say about human rights abuses what he said about slavery: 'We can no longer plead ignorance. We cannot turn aside'."

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