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 pioneered the role, some for more than a decade, often taking outspoken positions with countries such as China and Saudi Arabia.
While Lord 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 role of French, the Foreign Office says, will 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.”
French will try to build new alliances to advocate human rights issues both at the UN in New York and in Geneva. She will also act as the deputy permanent representative to the UN and other international organisations in Geneva under Julian Braithwaite.
She worked with Hunt previously as principal private secretary in the culture department, responsible for delivering the 2012 Olympic Games.
Human rights advocates inside governments have taken different forms. In Germany, the human rights commissioner Bärbel Kofler is an elected Bundestag member from the Social Democratic party, part of the ruling coalition. She has often taken action, issuing human rights statements condemning China recently in concert with the French, especially its ambassador for human rights, François Croquette.
A career diplomat appointed to the role in February 2017, Croquette claims a small network of European specialist human rights ambassadors now exists in embryo. In a recent interview he said: “The challenge is to find common ground, not to duplicate existing procedures and institutions, especially in Europe. But the weapon that is common to us is flexibility.”
The Netherlands has had a specialist ambassador for human rights since 1999, normally from within the Dutch diplomatic service, charged with bringing greater coherence and visibility to the government’s human rights policy. One previous occupant of the post admitted: “The recurrent question in the human rights debate in the Netherlands was: who comes first, the vicar or the businessman?” He said he found foreign governments were open to dialogue but not to criticism or finger pointing.