Archive: Jo Cox on progressive internationalism

Jo Cox

In December 2015 Jo Cox wrote her first essay for the Fabian Society, as part of our pamphlet Outward to the World. We hoped then that it would be her first of many Fabian publications, not the last. In ‘A new progressive internationalism’ Jo called for the left to ‘rebuild the case for a progressive approach to humanitarian intervention’. In doing so, she called on the memory of the late Robin Cook and in the same way, we hope her words will resonate beyond her life. We re-publish the essay today to share the values and ideas she stood for. In concluding the chapter, Jo called for the UK to establish a new official adviser for mass atrocity prevention. In her memory, we hope that politicians from all parties will embrace this proposal – AH


In recent years, Britain has withdrawn from the world. On Syria, on Europe, on Ukraine this government has been on the periphery: all victim of the same lack of long-term strategic thinking about British foreign policy and the absence of a moral compass. It is time for the left to revive its ethical foreign policy and carve out a new long-term narrative that puts human rights and the protection of civilians centre stage once again.

There is much to be proud of in the left’s internationalist past. Many from our movement made the ultimate sacrifice fighting Franco’s fascism during the Spanish civil war. We were unequivocal in our opposition to Apartheid in South Africa, led action to protect civilians in Kosovo and Sierra Leone. And we put this country firmly on the road to fulfil our historic commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GDP on aid – an act of solidarity that has seen millions more children in school and many more women surviving childbirth.

However, this active internationalist approach is not inevitable. It has been, and is still, contested across the political spectrum. It is threatened by an increasingly nationalist and isolationist right, by a government that has withdrawn from global leadership. And it is threatened by those on the left who might show great personal solidarity with international causes but tend to think the British state has no role to play.

As such, I believe the left is now in a fundamental fight about our future approach to international affairs: one where we decide whether to channel UK resources, diplomatic influence and military capability in defence of human rights and the protection of civilians; or one where we stand on the sidelines frozen by our recent failures.

I believe it’s time for the left to revive its ethical foreign policy and in particular, rebuild the case for a progressive approach to humanitarian intervention.

The willingness to intervene to protect civilians was strongly championed by Labour’s former foreign secretary, Robin Cook. In his 1999 Labour conference speech, he made the case for the Labour government not to “turn a blind eye to how other governments behave and a deaf ear to the cries for help of their people”.

Cook had six principles to guide the international community in any intervention, which were a precursor to the eventual adoption in 2005 of a new UN doctrine. His thinking helped to build a global consensus that: “where a population is suffering serious harm, as a result of internal war, insurgency, repression or state of failure, and the state is unwilling or unable to halt or advert it, the principle of non-intervention yields to the responsibility to protect.”

However, in the midst of this fragile and evolving international commitment to humanitarian intervention came Labour’s darkest hour. After the horror of 9/11 ‘interventionism’ was increasingly expressed through the paradigms of ‘security’ or ‘counter terrorism’, rather than being grounded firmly in the protection of civilians. And then Labour’s support for military action in Iraq distorted a worthy principle with such devastating impact. The legacy of Iraq – an intervention I was wholly opposed to because it was not fundamentally about protecting civilians – still hangs over us. But Labour can no longer be paralysed by Iraq. We need to learn from its many lessons without forgetting the equally important lessons of Bosnia or Rwanda.

For those who needed a reminder about what nonintervention looks like, Syria has been a stark illustration. President Assad dropped chemical weapons on school children and the world stood by. He rained down barrel bombs and cluster munitions on hospitals and homes and we did not respond.

For too long, the UK government let the crisis fester on the ‘too difficult to deal with’ pile. There was no credible strategy, nor courage or leadership – instead we had chaos and incoherence, interspersed with the occasional gesture. It’s been a masterclass in how not to do foreign policy and a shameful lesson on what happens when you ignore a crisis of this magnitude.

Only now, following the creation of Isis, the attacks on Paris and Tunisia, and the worst refugee crisis since the second world war has the prime minister started to set out the bones of a strategy. Although belated, this marks a step forward. But whereas he could have led on the development of a comprehensive plan with the protection of civilians at its core, instead he went for an ‘Isis-first’ approach which has already failed for 18 months in Syria.

Whilst, of course, the protection of UK citizens is our primary responsibility, unless we act to end the slaughter of civilians in Syria by President Assad, Isis will continue to find a steady stream of recruits from the Syrian Sunni population driven to desperation and radicalisation. In this context no amount of military action against Isis will be able to eradicate them. Moreover, moderate forces on the ground – the much discussed 70,000 – continue to be the primary target of the Syrian regime and Russian attacks. As long as these attacks persist these forces will not be able to focus – as many want to – on freeing their country from the cancer of Isis.

Unless, and until, UK strategy on Syria is grounded in the protection of civilians, including crucially through the Vienna process, efforts to secure a durable political settlement will struggle, as will the campaign to defeat Isis.

Our marginal role in the Syrian crisis has served to highlight the broader story of Britain’s withdrawal from the world. On Syria, on Europe, on Ukraine this government has been on the periphery: all victim of the same lack of long-term strategic thinking about British foreign policy and the absence of a moral compass. This flawed approach has not only damaged our ability to have an impact but also limits our capacity to be a force for good. The recent and sudden pivot in our relations with China (and the shame of being congratulated for not raising human rights), our relationship with Saudi Arabia, the rebadging of UK embassies as trade outposts and the lack of a comprehensive vision on a crisis the magnitude and complexity of Syria; all feel ill thought through and incoherent.

In addition, this flawed approach does not do justice to our status as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, our role as a leading member of NATO and the EU, or the fact that we have one of the best military and diplomatic services in the world.

In this context, the left should carve out a new long-term narrative about British foreign policy: one that puts human rights and the protection of civilians centre stage again. And one that reasserts our commitment to the responsibility to protect those most at risk of mass atrocity crimes.

This isn’t really about being pro or anti-military intervention. Rather it’s a call to redefine the principles that will guide the decisions we take, as well as a commitment to then honour them.

Sadly, there is currently no explicit UK policy on the prevention of mass atrocities or on the UN’s responsibility to protect (RtP) norm. There is also currently no mechanism in the UK that supports and monitors the government’s commitment to, and implementation of RtP. As a result, UK thinking is confused and often late, and the UK lags behind countries such as the US where the Atrocity Prevention Board brings together key players to facilitate earlier and coordinated responses to RtP threats.

For example, the Central African Republic (CAR) has long been of concern as a country at risk of genocide. Yet the UK government’s risk matrix, published in April 2013, didn’t even feature the CAR. Just one year later, the UN’s Commission of Enquiry into the CAR stated that 99 per cent of the Muslim population of Bangui had been forcibly displaced or killed. Crimes committed by the anti-Balaka are widely considered to constitute a ‘policy of ethnic cleansing’ against CAR’s Muslims. Had the UK had applied a ‘mass atrocity lens’ in its planning, CAR would most certainly have been identified as being at risk and UK policy could have been shaped appropriately.

One initiative that could have made a transformative difference, both in the CAR and in Syria, is the establishment of a cross-party special adviser on mass atrocity prevention, and a mechanism across Whitehall to integrate their thinking. This focal point inside government would perhaps have catalysed earlier, and more effective, life-saving action in both these tragic crisis.

The left should now ensure that clearly defined principles on human rights and the prevention of mass atrocities are at the centre of our foreign policy thinking and action. If we do, then as Robin Cook said in his first press conference on becoming foreign secretary in May 1997, “Britain will once again be a force for good in the world.” And if we don’t reclaim this ground I fear that British foreign policy will become increasingly commercially driven, tactical and chaotic rather than principled, strategic and coherent.

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