This article was first published on the UNA-UK website.
UNA-UK exists to promote the idea of global cooperation towards the aims of a safer, fairer and more sustainable world. In the aftermath of a divisive, and electorally decisive, General Election it is our role to consider the implications of this result for that agenda, and to urge the Government to use its new mandate in furtherance of policies which would have that effect.
During the election we performed our role by studying the foreign policy implications of party manifestos, launching our own manifesto, publishing an exclusive set of statements provided by political parties on their attitude to the United Nations and providing our members and supporters with a canvassing guide and hustings pack.
The Foreign Policy conversation
While the debate around foreign policy in the general election was frequently superficial, we were delighted to see that so many of the ideas that UNA-UK and our partner organisations have energetically advocated for were adopted as manifesto commitments by several mainstream political parties. These include:
- An increase in funding for UN Peacekeeping
- A commitment to advocate for a ban on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems or “Killer Robots”
- Steps towards nuclear disarmament, be it in terms of nuclear posture, number of nuclear weapons platforms or outright opposition to the UK’s possession of nuclear weapons
- An audit of the impact of Britain’s colonial legacy
- A commitment to return the Chagos Islands to their rightful owners
- Near universal opposition to the continuation of arms sales to countries where there are concerns with respect to human rights, with almost all parliamentary parties specifically committing to ending arms sales to Saudi Arabia
- Strong commitments on atrocity prevention, including calls on the government to commit to introducing mechanisms to prevent identity based violence and mass atrocities and a refocusing on the diplomatic priorities of the UN’s Responsibility to Protect doctrine
- Commitments to use sanctions as a mechanism for accountability for human rights violations
The UK now has a new Conservative Government with a significant majority. In the exclusive statement the Conservatives provided us on their approach to the UN they stated:
This is very welcome. We would strongly encourage the Government to consider the ideas above, and indeed the range of UNA-UK policy recommendations, to add policy substance to their foreign affairs agenda.
Further, given the UK’s changing role in the world and the major global challenges that Britain faces, the UK should now run a comprehensive and wide-reaching national consultation leading to the drafting of a new National Security Strategy/SDSR. We note the welcome announcement in the Queen’s speech of an Integrated Security, Defence and Foreign Policy Review, and await further details as to how these processes might interrelate.
The 2014 Lobbying Act
UNA-UK is deeply concerned about the chilling effect the Lobbying Act had on civil society during the electoral period. There is still a significant lack of clarity as to what precisely the Act allows registered charities such as UNA-UK to say in the course of an election campaign. The consequence is that the sector practices self-censorship to a greater or lesser extent. This means that at crucial moments when the electoral campaign touches upon areas where organisations have specific expertise, the most informed voices are likely to be absent from the national conversation.
Had it not been for the Lobbying Act we would have been able to enrich the frequently superficial debate about the UK’s role in the world, correct mistakes of fact, and help hold political parties of all stripes to account. We also would have been able to intervene at the following troubling moments when an intervention was clearly warranted:
- When the leaders of various political parties reduced the argument about nuclear security to dangerous macho posturing regarding their willingness to commit the ultimate crime against humanity of using a nuclear weapon
- When various political parties undermined the credibility of the United Kingdom in international human rights forums with irresponsible commitments regarding the potential use of amnesties for alleged war crimes. It was deeply concerning to see the Queen’s speech also reference limiting “vexatious” prosecutions of alleged war crimes; the UK’s ability to effectively campaign against impunity for war crimes worldwide will be significantly limited if it allows war crimes to go unpunished itself
- When various political parties undermined global attempts to ensure that members of the armed forces can operate in a legally regulated environment by floating the idea of limiting legal jurisdiction on the battlefield
- When political commentators and journalists misframed the debate around national security to place human rights into false opposition to countering terrorism
The need for national reconciliation
The election campaign raised concerns about race relations in the United Kingdom, which is both a troubling matter in its own right and also a considerable hurdle to the UK’s ability to speak with credibility on these issues on the global stage.
We have previously raised concerns about the Prime Minister’s use of language which is at odds with the values UK foreign policy looks to promote, and unfortunately in this campaign there were further incidents, with comments suggesting EU migrants should not treat the UK like home, and a manifesto commitment which threatens traveller communities’ way of life.
Further, across the political spectrum the charges of antisemitism and Islamophobia were raised, and politicised, but the issues themselves were not truly addressed: notably MPs were elected as candidates for several different political parties despite being under investigation for antisemitic comments.
While we welcome the record number of women MPs that have been elected, we note that there are still double the number of men as there are women MPs, and that women experience disproportionate and extreme forms of abuse – a contributory factor to the alarming number of women MPs deciding not to re-stand for election.
The result itself was deeply divisive, with the debate around Brexit having a polarising effect, generations demonstrating radically different preferences, and Scotland forging a separate path to the rest of the UK. There is now an urgent need for healing and reflection, and UNA-UK stands ready to engage in this process. Our role in facilitating the UK part of the UN’s “world’s biggest conversation on the world we want and the UN we need” can hopefully play a part.
This election holds lessons for individuals and organisations of all political persuasions, and for ourselves in civil society and the charitable sector. In particular it emphasises the tensions caused by the meetings of alternative realities created by algorithmic informational filtering, and exacerbated by the bubble effects of social media. It also demonstrates the consequences of being perceived to ignore the clearly expressed will of traditionally voiceless communities.
UNA-UK will attempt to demonstrate the lessons we have learned from this experience in our Together First campaign, which seeks to give a seat at the table to those who do not normally get invited to participate when global solutions are being discussed.