Hours after meeting British Prime Minister Theresa May, US President Donald Trump signed an executive order which banned the entry of all Syrian refugees into the country. He halted the entire US refugee programme for 120 days and suspended entry for all nationals from seven predominantly Muslim countries for 90 days.
The next day, May was pressed to criticise the order three times during a press conference in Istanbul. Each time she dodged the question, falling back on the line that “the United States is responsible for the United States’ policy on refugees, the United Kingdom is responsible for the United Kingdom’s policy on refugees”.
After much criticism of this tepid response Downing Street’s position gradually became more forceful. First came a late night statement that the PM did not agree with the policy and then, eventually, news that the PM had instructed both the home and foreign secretary to contact their US counterparts about how the ban may affect British citizens.
The problem for May is that, on this subject in particular, responses actually do matter.
A delicate balance
The entire system of international human rights protection depends on states being vocal when their peers fail to live up to agreed standards – and Trump’s executive order is arguably in breach of a number of international human rights treaties.
The mechanisms at the UN which enforce human rights treaties such as these are largely non-coercive, and instead rely on open dialogue with the state in question in order to explore how it can best fulfil its commitments. This relatively benign enforcement mechanism puts the onus on other world figures. Some clearly understand the importance of this role, among them Germany’s Angela Merkel, Pope Francis and the UN’s Zeid Ra'ad al Hussein.
May’s hedged response, on the other hand, is both a moral failure on her part and a threat to the effectiveness of the international human rights system more generally.
UN human rights bodies have been accused of double standards and politicisation for decades. When one of the founding members of the organisation refuses to criticise a close ally for its own failings, that omission is not lost on other states. May has commented that the very strength of the “special relationship” is that when she has concerns, she can speak frankly with Trump. Apparently the threshold for when she will do so is incredibly high.
A dubious record
Public responses also give some indication of how committed a state is to protecting the most vulnerable. The problem with May’s response, which only speaks to the interests of UK citizens, is that this demonstrates an inherent disinterest in the rights of others.
While British dual-nationals, including Olympic Runners and MPs, may be among those discriminated against by the ban, there are thousands of nationals of other states, many of whom are refugees and asylum seekers whose government does not protect their rights, requiring equally as strong a voice. Appealing only for the protection of the interests of one’s own nationals is not enough. It’s even reminiscent of a pre-World War II age when states would only intervene on issues affecting their own nationals – a system which worked wonders for fascist regimes.
There is an argument that May is biting her tongue on Trump’s actions out of concern for the UK’s national interest. After all, a post-Brexit Britain, cut adrift from the EU’s single market, will badly need close relationships with other states. This approach was exemplified by Downing Street’s statement that it will not consider revoking Trump’s invitation to a state visit, as that would “undo everything” achieved during May’s talks with him.
However, a glance at May’s track record demonstrates that her indifferent response may not be purely pragmatic. Her record on human rights and refugee protection is questionable, to say the least.
As home secretary, she ran a long battle to, in her own words, “create a hostile environment for illegal immigrants”. She did that by, among other things, compelling private landlords to check the immigration status of their tenants. She also backed the UK’s withdrawal from maritime rescue operations in the Mediterranean, which she argued were acting as a “pull factor”. Within days of becoming prime minister, she scrapped a ministerial post for Syrian refugees.
Her human rights record is no less hawkish. She has openly disdained “left-wing human rights lawyers”, proposed to exempt the UK from some human rights obligations overseas, and mounted a crusade to repeal the Human Rights Act and take Britain out of the European Convention on Human Rights. This is the context in which her response to Trump’s ban should be seen.
In this episode we therefore not only witness Theresa May as a pragmatic politician, but we are also reminded of Theresa May the human rights sceptic.
Leaders can to some extent be measured by their responses to each other – and less than a fortnight into Trump’s presidency, May has been found wanting. But she won’t have to wait long for another chance. Trump promises to usher in considerable changes to both internal and external US policies of all kinds. We can only hope that next time, the prime minister finds her voice and remembers what’s really important.