Event Summary: Has Brexit Challenged Global Justice? The UK and the Responsibility to Protect

On Thursday 9th May the BPFG’s Student Ambassador team based at the University of Leeds hosted an exciting panel discussion titled ‘Has Brexit Changed Global Justice?’ The event was hosted in conjunction with the Leeds University Politics and International Studies society and focused on the challenges surrounding Britain’s commitment to upholding the UN- endorsed Responsibility to Protect (R2P).

The panel included:

Ivan Lewis MP

Dr James Worrall – Associate Professor in International Relations and Middle East Studies at the University of Leeds

Hugh Findlay – Director of Government Relations at the Sino British Summit

Adam Shaikh – BFPG Student Ambassador (Chair)

The panellists provided valuable insights on the issues at hand, giving an informative and holistic account of the challenges surrounding the UK’s commitment to upholding the R2P.

The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is the international human rights and security concept which holds that states have the responsibility to protect citizens around the globe from mass atrocity crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and war crimes. R2P was endorsed by UN Member countries at a summit in 2005, however the application of the principle has been relatively inconsistent.

Brexit: a political challenge to R2P?

Ivan Lewis MP drew upon his experiences as Secretary of State for the Department for International Development (DfID) and as a Minister for the UK Foreign Office. He emphasised how Brexit in a foreign policy context encapsulates a broader climate of being anti-intervention which could potentially work against the principles of the R2P. This is particularly pertinent in the aftermath of recent western-led interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya and the backlash of popular opinion.

However, Lewis highlighted that military intervention under the R2P is a last resort, citing how conflict can and has been prevented without the use of military force, using the example of the 2007-2008 Kenyan elections.

In the wake of government spending cuts, Lewis stressed the need to look at government budgets holistically in order to maximise the UK’s capacity to fulfil the R2P goals. These goals must be incorporated into a coherent vision of what a post-Brexit Britain will look like, highlighting the need for the national debate to move past the semantics of the leaving process itself in order to look towards the future.


Strengthening commitment to R2P through soft power and multilateral cooperation

Dr James Worrall also raised concerns about the capacity of the UK to uphold the R2P with cuts to the defence budget. A lack of a global willingness to engage unilaterally outside of a coalition on R2P matters was also highlighted as a recent global phenomena. As a result, the necessity to invigorate the UK’s existing networks and soft power was highlighted as a priority. Dr Worrall welcomed the Foreign Office’s attempts to reopen embassies in countries where they had either closed or not existed in the first place. By understanding the parameters of what can be achieved under the R2P you can then leverage these strengths and weakness to formulate coherent foreign policy. Dr Worrall highlighted the need to continue to strengthen the UK Civil Service and prioritise language tuition in schools in order to provide Britain with the necessary tools to engage with the R2P globally in the present and the future.

Hugh Findlay highlighted the current political deadlock caused by Brexit which is impacting on the both the credibility of the UK’s international standing. Although this is a concern for Britain, its impact on upholding the R2P in theory should be limited as the R2P is moral principle enshrined in international agreements and legislation. Conflict prevention on a global scale exists outside of the EU with multilateral and bilateral engagements with countries like the USA as also being important in the pursuit of the R2P. Although Findlay suggested implementing an R2P policy could prove challenging in the current political climate the need to for coherent R2P strategy in Whitehall is crucial.

Looking forward: R2P and UK engagement with the rest of the world post-Brexit

In response to a point made by Lewis about the UK’s right to a position as a permanent member in the UNSC being under threat, Findlay said the UK may not have the largest economy, military, or soft power, but it is one of the few countries that would consistently rank in the top bracket for all of these categories and still warranted its position.

In relation to the UK’s policy towards China in an R2P context, Findlay suggested that considering recent political tensions in with the US, they’re looking for a partner in Europe, explaining  why China has not widely voiced its attitudes surrounding Brexit. After demonstrating its clear economic might, China is seeking recognition on the international stage. This is why Hugh stressed the importance of a close relationship with China in order to provide constructive support surrounding the R2P issue whilst mutually benefiting from economic cooperation.

The event, the first hosted by the student ambassador team in Leeds, considered the key issues surrounding Britain’s commitment to the R2P but highlighted potential solutions whilst engaging with broader debates surrounding the UK’s Foreign Policy post-Brexit. This event was part of a series of events that BFPG’s Student Ambassadors will organise over the course of the academic year.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the BFPG. The BFPG is an independent not for profit organisation that encourages constructive, informed and considered opinions without taking an institutional position on any issue.
BFPG Admin