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Putting human rights at the heart of Scottish foreign policy

So far the debate in Scotland has focused on how the status quo can be maintained

So far the debate in Scotland has focused on how the status quo can be maintained

One of the most positive contributions to the independence debate has been the Scottish Government’s recent commitment to a ‘do no harm’ exports policy in the event of a Yes vote.

Last month the Scottish Government’s Minister for External Affairs and International Development, Humza Yousaf, wrote a well received blog for The Herald that presented the Scottish Government’s vision in contrast with the current UK one, saying “our good work globally will not be undermined by the selling of arms to some of the world’s most brutal dictators as has been done by previous UK governments.”

I was very impressed, but I wanted to know more about which governments Yousaf and his colleagues see as ‘brutal dictators’ and which they see as potential partners. The UK’s links with regimes that abuse human rights are well known, so I contacted Yousaf on Twitter to ask him to clarify what criteria the Scottish Government would hope to apply in an independent Scotland.

He responded very quickly, telling me “We look towards the Swedish model of Policy Coherence where civil society provides the barometer in conjunction with government.”

The problem is that the Swedish policy has almost as many inconsistencies and contradictions as the UK one. Swedish exports from 2012 included €57 million worth of military exports to Algeria and €6.5 million to Bahrain. If we look to 2011, Sweden’s largest customers included Saudi Arabia, to whom they sold almost €500,000,000 of military equipment, and UAE, who bought over €70 million. Although it could be argued that the Swedish policy is an improvement on the UK’s one, it’s also clear that it’s a policy to be challenged rather than replicated.

A disappointing aspect of the recent debates about the impact of Scottish independence on jobs in the Govan shipyard and Rosyth naval base is that they have focused almost entirely on how the status quo can be maintained. Very few voices have focused on the ways in which the Scottish Government can encourage a more positive and constructive manufacturing sector, with less focus on military industry and the arms trade.

Yousaf’s goal is admirable, but it needs to be underpinned by a greater clarity. According to the Scottish Council for Development & Industry, there are 185 arms companies with offices in Scotland, which employ 12,600 skilled workers and account for annual sales of £1.8 billion, so what happens to them is obviously a matter of concern.

One of the most thoughtful responses to the launch of the White Paper came from the Unite union’s Scottish Secretary, Pat Rafferty, who said “We also believe there is a case for the creation of a Scottish defence diversification agency to help offset the employment impact on the proposed removal of Trident.” With a wider brief, such an agency could also examine alternative work for the other people currently employed in the military industry in Scotland.

Not only would a ‘do no harm’ foreign policy present fresh and ambitious new thinking on an area that is traditionally done in the dark, but in the short term it would set a challenge to pro-union campaigners to look at the impact UK arms exports have on global peace, security and human rights and reflect on how this can be improved.

This isn’t the first time that a high ranking politician has spoken about the need to make human rights central to foreign policy. In 1997 the late UK foreign secretary, Robin Cook, spoke about the need for a foreign policy with human rights at its heart. He also argued for the conversion of military industry to socially useful production. Unfortunately neither of these goals were realised, but Scottish people should remember his arguments and take warning from his failures, whether in an independent Scotland or as part of the UK.

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