London: The British government is appointing an international ambassador dedicated to the promotion of human rights, in a move that is likely to put the UK’s patchy approach to autocratic regimes under greater scrutiny.
The foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has appointed Rita French, formerly his principal private secretary, to take on the task of promoting the UK’s work at the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council and the cause of human rights internationally.
The role is the first of its kind for the British government, although a clutch of other countries including France, Germany and the Netherlands have had the role, some for more than a decade, often taking outspoken positions with countries such as China and Saudi Arabia.
While Tariq Ahmad, the Foreign Office minister in the Lords, currently has ministerial responsibility for human rights, it is one of many portfolios he holds, and the aim is to give the championing of human rights a higher profile.
The Foreign Office said French’s role would be to act as an advocate for human rights inside the government, as well as a global champion for human rights across the globe. One test of her effectiveness will be whether she becomes more than the tolerated conscience of the government, echoing the views of external human rights groups but not truly reflecting government policy.
There have been repeated claims that, post-Brexit, the UK will place desperately needed free trade deals ahead of human rights considerations, a charge Hunt denies, in part pointing to this new posting.
French will also have a role in promoting the government’s key human rights campaigns, which currently include media freedom, modern slavery and freedom of religion or belief. Hunt believes focused campaigns can act almost as “a Trojan horse” to push wider universal human rights concerns with countries.
Putting the appointment implicitly in the context of Brexit, Hunt said: “As the UK enters a new chapter in its history, I will work to ensure that our values are at the heart of all we do. Ambassador French’s new role will be central to our work in defending human rights across the globe. Standing up for human rights is not only the right thing, it helps to create a stable, more prosperous world.”
French said: “Human rights are the essential foundations for a fair, open and transparent society. It is tragic that in too many countries these rights are violated and abused. I will speak up for human rights, providing a voice on the international stage for those who are not being represented. I also wish to form stronger partnerships with states, supporting their efforts to fulfil their human rights obligations.”