Friday, 16 May 2014

Just Another Case of Motherhood and Apple Pie? Human Rights in Cameron’s Foreign Policy

Peter Munce and Matt Beech from the University of Hull evaluate human rights in David Cameron's foreign policy.

In his foreword to this year’s FCO human rights and democracy report the Foreign Secretary, William Hague stated that:

I and my ministerial team hope this year’s report will help make support for action to promote and protect human rights as universal as the rights themselves. They are the most precious thing we have in common.[1]

Like motherhood and apple pie who could be against such a vision for the protection of human rights? This strong commitment to protect and promote human rights abroad is an essential element of David Cameron and William Hague’s liberal-Conservative foreign policy.[2] For Conservatives, their support for human rights in foreign policy terms is, arguably, more than mere motherhood and apple pie. After all, the Conservatives under Cameron have, for the first time, undertaken humanitarian interventionsto protect the rights of non-British individuals.[3] The conflict in Libya and the consideration given towards military intervention against the Assad regime in Syria support this claim. This is contrasted with the more sceptical and realist perspectives held by previous Conservative administrations that have emphasised diplomacy and economic sanctions as opposed to humanitarian intervention.

However, at the same time as support for human rights was emerging as a critical element of their global view the Conservatives were pursuing an alternative narrative domestically. This narrative has been profoundly critical of the Human Rights Act[4] and, even more so, in recent times with the issue of prisoner voting rights high on the political agenda. Conservative MPs have also expressed growing criticism of the ECHR and, its court, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). For example, speaking about the Conservative Party’s forthcoming general election manifesto the Home Secretary, Theresa May argued that:

…by 2015 we’ll need a plan for dealing with the European Court of Human Rights. And yes, I want to be clear that all options – including leaving the Convention altogether should be on the table.[5]

Arguably, there is a charge of inconsistency that can be brought against the liberal Conservative foreign policy of Cameron and Hague. On the one hand they support a rules-based system of international law and on the other is their developing position on the ECHR. How is it possible for Conservatives to support the promotion of international human rights through the UN and through interventions in Libya and, simultaneously, give serious consideration to withdrawing from the pre-eminent international human rights treaty?

Despite Conservative scepticism in domestic politics about human rights and the influence of the ECHR, such is the irresistibility of human rights as both an idea and in the codification of rights in international law, that Conservatives in foreign policy terms have embraced them rhetorically and through international institutions. Conservatives might have expressed opposition to the Strasbourg Court and to the domestic regime for the protection of rights in the form of the HRA, but in foreign policy terms, Cameron and Hague have embraced the language of rights in keynote speeches and through humanitarian intervention.

Cameron and Hague’s liberal Conservative foreign policy is a break from the traditional realist worldview of their Conservative forebears.  Their commitment to defend international human rights via humanitarian intervention is evidence of this evolution in foreign policy thinking. A tension at the heart of their liberal Conservatism is the dissonance between scepticism of the HRA and the ECtHR and enthusiasm for international human rights.  At home these Conservatives are often the sharpest critics and sceptics of human rights but, abroad, they enthusiastically harness British foreign policy to defend the human rights of non-British citizens. 

Peter Munce and Matt Beech

Peter Munce is a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellow at the Centre for British Politics, University of Hull. Matt Beech is Senior Lecturer in Politics and Director of the Centre for British Politics, University of Hull. For correspondence about this article contact

[1] Hague, W. (2014) Foreword to Human Rights and Democracy Report 2013, (London: FCO), last accessed 11 May 2014.
[2] Beech, M. (2011) ‘British Conservatism and Foreign Policy: Traditions and Ideas Shaping Cameron’s Global View’, British Journal of Politics and International Relations, Vol. 13, Issue 3, 348-363, last accessed 11 May 2014.
[3] Beech, M. & Oliver, T.J. (2014) ‘Humanitarian Intervention and Foreign Policy in the Conservative-led Coalition’, Parliamentary Affairs, Vol. 67, Issue 1, 102-118, last accessed 11 May 2014.
[4] Travis, A. (2013) ‘Conservatives Promise to Scrap Human Rights Act after Next Election’, The Guardian, 30 September,, last accessed 11 May 2014.
[5] May, T. (2013) Victory 2015, speech to Conservative Home Conference, London, 9 March, last accessed 11 May 2014.


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