Foreign Secretary William Hague rejected allegations that Britain is boosting trade at the expense of human rights, arguing his trip to the signing of a BP Plc gas deal in Azerbaijan this week let him raise concerns about abuses.
“We’re not going to be doing any favors to human rights if we say we’re not going to support British companies overseas,” Hague said in an interview as he flew to Baku for the ceremony, arguing that the government raises the issue of abuses whenever it can. “It’s not a principle of British foreign policy not to trade with countries with whom we have human-rights difficulties.”
BP led a group of companies signing the $45 billion agreement Dec. 17 to pipe natural gas from Azerbaijan’s Shah Deniz field to Italy, offering the European Union an alternative to Russian export monopoly OAO Gazprom, which supplies about a quarter of the region’s gas.
Hague’s trip emphasized the importance Prime Minister David Cameron’s government is placing on boosting British business abroad, after decades of industrial decline. Cameron drew press criticism at home at the start of the month when he went to China for a visit that focused on trade rather than human rights. Trade is also increasingly important for a nation whose military and diplomatic clout is diminished.
It’s a 5 1/2-hour direct flight from Baku to London, but it took Hague eight hours each way. He doesn’t have access to the modern aircraft many of his counterparts enjoy and instead made the journey in an aging Royal Air Force plane, stopping to refuel in Bucharest.
At 26,000 feet (8,000 meters), the BAE 146 jet from the RAF’s Royal Squadron offered a low, slow journey, which Hague’s team partly passed on the way home by consulting the on-board copy of the Times Atlas of the World and identifying nearby mountain ranges. Afternoon tea was served from a silver pot, with a selection of cakes.
The pipeline deal is “very significant for BP,” Hague said. “We’re doing a lot for BP at the moment. But so we should be. They’re an important company for the British economy.”
Her Majesty’s secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs can no longer send a gunboat to countries whose behavior he disapproves of, such as Azerbaijan, whose government is ranked among the world’s most corrupt and repressive by organizations such as Transparency International and Reporters Without Borders.
This doesn’t mean, though, that the U.K. has to compromise its principles, Hague argued. “It’s our policy to raise human rights very actively and then trade,” he said.
Cameron’s trade focus in China showed how difficult it is to walk this line. It was the premier’s first visit to the world’s second-largest economy in three years after a series of diplomatic spats including over a 2012 meeting with the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.
British newspapers contrasted it with a trip last month to Sri Lanka, where Cameron confronted President Mahinda Rajapaksa over allegations of rights abuses against the island’s Tamil minority.
Hague’s 17-hour visit to Baku included a private session with rights groups. One of those he had been due to meet was Anar Mammadli, head of the non-governmental Election Monitoring and Democratic Studies Center. Mammadli was instead arrested on the day of Hague’s arrival for tax evasion and illegal entrepreneurship. His lawyers said the charges were politically motivated.
The foreign secretary said he’d raised Mammadli’s case with Azeri President Ilham Aliyev.
“If nobody ever goes to see him and asks him about human rights, we won’t make much progress,” Hague said. “It’s definitely not a rebalancing. There’s been no dilution in any way. We’re among the most vigorous countries in the world in raising human-rights issues.”
Cameron’s efforts to promote U.K. business suffered a setback yesterday when BAE Systems Plc said the United Arab Emirates had stopped talks to buy Eurofighter Typhoon combat jets and that negotiations with Saudi Arabia were also delayed. The prime minister was pushing the company’s case at the Dubai air show last month.
Britain’s overseas muscle is currently shrinking. The size of the armed forces is being cut and troops are pulling out of Afghanistan. More jarring for the government was the unprecedented vote in August, when Parliament refused Cameron’s request to back missile strikes against Syria.
Even so, Hague said, it had been a good year for diplomacy.
“You can make surprising diplomatic breakthroughs. We saw that in Syria on the chemical weapons. Who would have thought six months ago we would reach a deal at the Security Council on Syrian chemical weapons. And who would have thought there would be a deal with Iran?”
Turning to domestic politics, Hague, who fought and lost the 2001 general election as Conservative leader on a platform of keeping the U.K. out of the euro, said his party still spoke for euro-skeptics who want to reduce EU influence on the U.K. He was dismissive of the chances in the 2015 general election of the U.K. Independence Party, which wants full withdrawal from the EU and has attracted more than 10 percent support in opinion polls.
“I see them as a vehicle for protest in some elections,” Hague said. “In general elections, it’s a choice between David Cameron and Ed Miliband,” the opposition Labour Party leader.
At the end of the interview Hague returned to human rights, talking with passion about his campaign against sexual violence in conflict, where he’s enlisted actress Angelina Jolie as an ally.
“We’re going to shatter immunity for rape as a weapon of war,” Hague said. “My ambition is to change the whole attitude of the world on this issue.”