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20 June 2019

Britons joint top for prioritising human rights in international trade

Findings from a global survey for David Miliband’s 2019 Fulbright Legacy Lecture


Britain ranks alongside Sweden as top for prioritising human rights in international trade, with 50% of the public saying we should only trade with countries that have a good human rights record, even if it harms our economy. Less than half that many – 20% – think economic benefits should take precedence over human rights in international trade. 

The finding comes from a major 24-country, 17,000-interview online survey by Ipsos MORI and the Policy Institute at King’s College London to inform David Miliband’s 2019 Fulbright Legacy Lecture series.

Other key findings include:

Countries’ and international organisations’ influence

  • Among the global public, Iran is most likely to be seen as using its influence for bad from all the countries asked about in the study (31%). This is followed by a group of Israel (24%), Russia (25%), and Saudi Arabia (25%). The US is next most likely to be seen as using its influence for bad (22%), although 18% say they use that influence for good, and 37% for both good and bad.

  • Globally, Canada (37%), the UN (35%) and Germany (32%) seen as most likely to use their influence for good.
  • Russia is the country most widely perceived by Britons as having a negative influence, with two in five (40%) saying Russia uses its influence mostly for bad, significantly higher than the global average of 25%.
  • Three in ten (29%) across all countries think the US is less likely to use its influence for good compared with 10 years ago, similar to Russia (29%), Israel (27%), Iran (32%), Saudi Arabia (29%). However, 17% say the US is more likely to use its influence for good now, higher than in Russia (13%), Israel (10%), Saudi Arabia (9%) and Iran (7%).

International relations

  • Britain is among the most likely, with Sweden (50%), Hungary (46%) and South Africa (43%), to say a country’s human rights record should be an important factor in deciding relations with that country: 41% in Great Britain mention this, versus 30% Britons place similar emphasis on the importance of economic (40%) and security (39%) benefits.
  • Over a third (36%) of people around the world think their country should only trade with countries with a good human rights record, even if it hurts their economy – but 33% think their country should trade with any country if it helps their economy, regardless of that country’s record on human rights.

  • Globally, the top two factors people around the world say should be important in deciding the closeness of relations with other countries are economic (44%) and security benefits (40%) – but a country’s human rights record (30%) and respect for international law (30%) come next, ahead of the environmental impact of that country (20%), whether or not the country is a democracy (20%), military benefits (19%) and historical relations between the countries (14%).

International law and human rights

  • Four in ten (38%) around the world think their country should never break international laws on human rights, while one in five (21%) think their country should break these laws in extreme circumstances (21%) and a similar proportion think international laws should only be one factor their country takes into account (22%).

  • Globally, half (53%) think their own country’s military should always put avoiding civilian casualties ahead of their national interest. Only 14%

The survey’s findings will inform the 2019 Fulbright Legacy Lecture, delivered by former UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband and co-sponsored by King’s College London, the University of Edinburgh and Pembroke College, Oxford.

In the lecture, Miliband will argue that the West has retreated from a position of global responsibility, allowing repressive governments to act with relative impunity.

Commenting on the results, David Miliband, President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, said:

“This polling reveals some striking findings. The United States is now seen as on a par with Russia and Saudi Arabia as countries most likely to ‘use their influence for bad’. By comparison Germany, Canada, and the UN are seen as most likely to use ‘their influence for good’. In my view, Britain is in Brexit baulk – neither wholly positive nor negative, more likely to be ignored. The poll shows that around the world a large number of people are looking for commitment to human rights and global engagement. However, it should be shocking that the US should be perceived by many to have descended to the level of Russia as a global spoiler.”

Professor Bobby Duffy, Director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London, said:

“The survey shows that, when made to choose, the public in Britain and around the world balance competing objectives in international relations. They place a significant emphasis on human rights – with Britons being the most likely to say they’d prioritise respecting international laws over economic benefits – but many also clearly recognise the dilemmas and trade-offs. The results show there is a space and a pressing need for more open and honest discussions with the public about the choices we need to make, to reflect the type of society we want to be.”

Kelly Beaver, Managing Director of Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute, said:

”Our previous research on attitudes to human rights shows that the majority around the world believe that they are important and should be protected by law, but that not everyone believes they make a difference to their own life.  This latest research takes our understanding further, and demonstrates that very few think human rights should be ignored entirely, particularly in the conduct of war.  But when placed in context against other priorities – notably economic and security ones – public opinion does not give human rights an automatic carte blanche.”