Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Submission to the House of Commons Select Committee on Foreign Affairs



  1.  The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) Human Rights Annual Report 2000 covers the 12 month period to June 2000. This memorandum highlights the observations of Amnesty International UK on the report's structure and content. However, we would also wish to draw the Committee's attention to our human rights audit of UK Foreign and Asylum Policy, which provides a more detailed appraisal of government policy over a period roughly similar to that covered in the FCO's report[3].


  2.  We hope that the production of an authoritative annual human rights report is a practice that has now taken root in the Foreign Office. Nevertheless, it is worth repeating a point that we made in our submission to the Committee last year; that "[w]ider and deeper understanding of how the government applies human rights principles to policy enhances the quality of public debate. This debate leads to better policies . . . The human rights annual report is an important component of the Government's initiatives to make relevant information available." We might add that some of the information contained in the report reflects good practice and positive action that would not otherwise reach the public domain.

  3.  The production of an annual report has also provided the hook for an annual appraisal of the FCO's human rights policy by the Foreign Affairs Committee. Such scrutiny is vital and underlines the importance that Parliament attaches to an effective human rights policy. We hope that the annual evidence sessions and reports on this issue will continue.


    (a)  The practice of producing a Human Rights Annual Report is an important contribution to public debate and should be continued;

    (b)  The Foreign Affairs Select Committee should maintain its practice of annually taking evidence from the Minister of State on this subject.


  4.  The Annual Report 2000 follows basically the same structure as 1999's report, which Amnesty International welcomed as a significant improvement on the previous year. Further improvements have been made, demonstrating that Foreign Office officials have genuinely listened to comments and suggestions made by Amnesty International and others. We are pleased to see a full index for example. Good use has also been made of links to relevant websites. The appendices are also very useful.


    (c)  The Foreign Office should continue to seek the views and suggestions of non-governmental organisations at an early stage in the preparation of the report.


  5.  Last year, Amnesty International called for a fuller description of the role of other government departments in promoting human rights. The FCO has responded in Chapter Two. Regrettably, the Department for International Development was either unable or unwilling to participate in the production of this year's report, although this does not appear to have had an adverse effect on either the quality of the report or on central messages concerning the indivisibility and universality of human rights.

  6.  The second half of Chapter Two highlights the government's efforts to deliver human rights in the UK. Although the report was completed before the full entry into force of the Human Rights Act, it describes the Act as "one of the most significant pieces of constitutional legislation enacted in this country" (p 31). Amnesty International agrees. However, over the past 12 months, there have been significant misrepresentations and misunderstandings of the Act and the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR). For example, there were mistaken suggestions that the ECHR was a creation of the European Union rather than the Council of Europe. The Act was also construed as a transferral of power from domestic courts to judges "in Europe". If anything, the opposite is true.

  7.  We believe that such misunderstandings highlight the need to enhance public knowledge of human rights and the principle international instruments that establish and enforce them. Citizenship education must play a central role in conveying this knowledge to young people. In next year's report we would welcome a description of how the Department for Education and Employment is promoting human rights awareness amongst UK pupils.

  8.  Chapter Two also notes that the Deputy First Minister of Scotland has announced a consultation process of the need for a Human Rights Commission in Scotland. Amnesty International welcomes this debate. However, we recommend that the Government initiate a consultation on establishing a Human Rights commission function for all the United Kingdom.


    (d)  Next year's report should highlight measures being taken by the Department for Education to promote human rights awareness among young people in the UK;

    (e)  The Government should initiate a consultation on establishing a human rights commission function for all the United Kingdom.


  9.  We welcome the UK's ratification of all the core conventions of the International Labour Organisation. On page 42 of the report, the Foreign Office notes that "[o]ur adherence to all eight ILO core Labour Conventions puts us in a stronger position to lobby for their ratification and implementation throughout the world". This is an important point, since the UK cannot convincingly argue for other countries to sign up for standards that it does not adhere to. We recommend that in the next annual human rights report, the Foreign Office provides a full description of the UK's stance towards the all principal international instruments and their optional or additional protocols.

  10.  We regret the failure to give UK citizens the right to petition bodies established under certain UN treaties. It would be wrong to suggest that such rights are rendered superfluous by the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). For example:

    —  the ICCPR has a more comprehensive guarantee of equality before the law and non-discrimination than the ECHR;

    —  the ICCPR specifies rights of detainees that the ECHR does not;

    —  the ICCPR enshrines children's rights whilst the ECHR does not.

  Providing individual petition rights to UK citizens would therefore extend human rights protection domestically. It would also strengthen the Foreign Office's capacity to lobby other countries from regions where human rights mechanisms are less comprehensive than in Europe.


    (f)  Next year's human rights report should provide a comprehensive explanation of the UK's stance towards major international human rights instruments;

    (g)  The Government should review its reservations and its stance towards the optional provisions contained in international treaties, including rights of individual petition. Any review should not only consider domestic impact, but also international effects, such as the potential to enhance UK leadership in support of the treaties.

UN Human Rights Mechanisms and Treaty Monitoring Bodies

  11.  Various UN human rights treaties establish committees to monitor state implementation of treaty provisions. In the report, the Foreign Offices states that "we attach the utmost importance to ensuring that [they] are effective—and that they receive the support they need from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights" (p 42). The report places a similar emphasis on the effectiveness of and co-operation with UN human rights mechanisms, such as Special Rapporteurs, Special Representatives and Working Groups. Most of these also rely on the support of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

  12.  We welcome the government's diplomatic support for these mechanisms and bodies, as well as the financial contributions provided to OHCHR by DFID and the FCO. However, we would wish to draw the Committee's attention to the serious pressures and lack of resourcing experienced by OHCHR. Between 1995 and 1998 there was a 38 per cent increase in the number of special mechanisms calling on OHCHR's resources.

  13.  However, since 1993 UN regular budget funding for human rights programmes has decreased by $1 million. The UK should therefore work towards securing adequate resources for OHCHR from the UN's regular budget. Amnesty International would welcome the development of a government strategy to increase support for special mechanisms and to ensure that OHCHR gets the support it needs.


    (k)  The UK should maintain its diplomatic and financial support to the OHCHR, the human rights mechanisms and the Treaty Monitoring Bodies. It should develop a strategic approach to enhancing the effectiveness of these mechanisms and bodies including by ensuring adequate resourcing for OHCHR's support activities from the UN regular budget.

UN Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR)

  14.  We welcome the FCO's assertion that "[I]t is a mistake to dismiss [country] resolutions as mere gestures by the international community that take the place of real action. Resolutions can be of central importance to the international community's response to human rights problems." Importantly, the report notes that "[r]esolutions also provide real assurance and support to those who are persecuted, by reminding both them and the perpetrators of violations against them that the world has not forgotten about them" [p 38].

  15.  We agree with these observations and acknowledge the role played by the United Kingdom and its EU partners in securing a number of country resolutions at this year's UNCHR. However, we regret the failure to co-sponsor a resolution on the human rights situation in China. We entirely support the Foreign Affairs Committee's recommendations made in its recent report on China[4].

  16.  Once again, no country promoted a resolution on Saudi Arabia at the UNCHR. Given the serious human rights concerns in the Kingdom, this is a matter of regret. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia has made a number of encouraging commitments in the past 12 months, as summarised on page 120. The Government should regard the promotion of human rights in the Kingdom as a priority and next year's report should contain an update on progress.


    (o)  The UK should publicly indicate its willingness to support a resolution on China at next year's UNCHR;

    (p)  There should be early co-ordination of the EU towards a draft resolution on China, accompanied by a determined effort to lobby for support of the EU stance;

    (q)  The Government should regard the promotion of human rights in Saudi Arabia as a priority. Next year's report should detail the Kingdom's progress towards implementing commitments made over the past year.

European Union

  17.  Much of the UK's human rights policy continues to be executed in conjunction with the European Union. We are therefore pleased that steps have been taken to increase the transparency of EU action in this field, not least by publishing a second annual report on human rights activities, by organising a Human Rights Discussion Forum and by inviting NGOs to participate in a session of the Council of Ministers Human Rights Working Group. We hope that moves towards increased transparency will be developed and enhanced.

  18.  The Amsterdam Treaty established a new and foreign policy instrument for the EU, the "common strategy". A number of common strategies have been agreed and we would welcome a description and appraisal of their contribution to human rights.


    (t)  The UK should continue to work for transparency in the EU's human rights activities and work for increased dialogue and co-operation between NGOs and EU institutions;

    (u)  Next year's annual report should describe and appraise the contribution of EU common strategies to human rights.


Tackling Impunity

  19.  We welcome the government's explanation of international humanitarian law on pages 52-55 and its efforts to increase awareness of and respect for these standards. This is of fundamental importance given the increased deliberate and systematic targeting of civilians witnesses in many of the world's conflict zones.

  20.  The report notes that "[p]erpetrators of such abuses calculate that they can act with impunity. In the chaos of war their crimes usually go unreported and normal law enforcement ceases to function". This is one reason why the establishment of an International Criminal Court is of such importance.

  21.  The UK has a strong track record of support for the international criminal tribunals for former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. The Government also played a positive role in negotiations leading to the agreement of the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court. Sixty countries need to ratify the Statute before the Court can begin operations; 25 have done so. We therefore welcome the recent announcement of legislation to enable the UK to join their number.

  22.  To ensure that the legislation presented to Parliament is of a high standard and capable of securing the maximum possible support, the Foreign Office published a draft ICC bill in August 2000. This consultation document contained a number of strengths but also some weaknesses. Many of these are of a technical nature but others are more serious, including:

    —  The failure to provide UK courts with jurisdiction over genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes no matter where they are or committed, no matter who is responsible;

    —  A failure to clearly state that there shall be no immunity attaching to heads of state or other politicians or officials with respect to ICC crimes;

    —  Leaving decisions on whether to institute a UK prosecution proceedings to the Attorney-General—a politician—rather than the Director of Public Prosecutions.

  23.  These shortcomings are important because, as the annual Report notes, "[t]he prime responsibility for punishing atrocities will remain with national courts". Unless the weaknesses of the draft bill are remedied, there is a risk that those responsible for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity could escape prosecution, even if they reside in the United Kingdom.

  24.  The Committee should also note that negotiations are continuing on some of the detail that will need to be agreed before the Court enters into operation. These include financing measures and a relationship agreement between the ICC and the UN. Regrettably, the United States of America is seeking to use these negotiations as an opportunity to introduce measures that will prevent the court exercising jurisdiction over US servicemen or officials. Although we would welcome the USA's signature on the Rome Statute, we do not believe that this should be bought at the price of a weakened Statute. We would welcome reassurance from the government that it will oppose any attempt to undermine the Statute's integrity.


    (f)  The forthcoming ICC Bill should provide the universal jurisdiction of UK courts over ICC crimes, should eliminate immunities for persons suspected of those crimes and allocate responsibility for initiating criminal proceedings to the Director of Public Prosecutions;

    (g)  The UK should oppose any measures to weaken the integrity of the Rome Statute.


  25.  One of the most critical issues facing the international community at present is the scale of refugee flows. As the report notes, "the vast majority of those fleeing persecution or conflict find themselves in neighbouring countries, most often in Africa" (p 54). Although the UK's asylum regulations and its treatment of asylum-seekers are beyond the scope of the Foreign Affairs Committee, we believe it is important to note that practices in the United Kingdom will be noted elsewhere. This is just one reason why the Government must ensure that international obligations are fully respected and that refugees and asylum seekers in the UK are able to enjoy their full human rights.

  26.  The European Union is playing an increasing role in asylum and refugee issues. One EU initiative was the agreement of action plans covering a number of countries that generate significant numbers of refugees (the UK drafted an action plan on Sri Lanka). One of the key concepts of the action plans was a cross-pillar approach that, amongst other things, would use external affairs tools to address the root causes of refugee movements. However, we are concerned that, to date, there has been insufficient attention paid to root causes and renewed momentum needs to be put into the foreign policy aspects of the action plans.


    (j)  Next year's annual human rights report should provide a description of the EU's action plans on Sri Lanka and other countries, paying particular attention to measures designed to address root causes of refugee movements and achievements to date.

Arms Export Controls

  27.  In July 2000, the Government published its third Annual Report on Strategic Export Controls. Amnesty International described this as a significant improvement on previous reports in terms of the quality of information provided. We are also pleased that the Government has indicated that it will provide information on the number of weapons contained with in each licence for the categories covering conventional and small arms. The Government should go further and provide such information across all categories. Further improvements could also be made by providing details on the end-users of arms and information on licenses refused.

  28.  One of Amnesty International's priorities in relation to strategic exports has been to bring arms brokering and licensed production within the licensing regime. Although the Human Rights Annual Report contained little mention of these issues, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has promised to introduce measures to control brokers. We look forward to examining the Secretary of State's proposals. To be effective, it is essential that they include provision for a register of arms brokers as well as a licensing regime for individual deals. We believe that controls should also be extended to licensed production deals.

  29.  Amnesty International UK has repeatedly expressed frustration at the Government's failure to introduce new legislation on export controls. On page 61, the Annual Report notes that government proposals for such legislation were introduced in a White Paper in July 1998, that the proposals were being reviewed in the light of comments received and that proposals for new export control legislation would be announced following the conclusion of the review. The report states that Government "is committed to introducing a bill to implement this legislation as soon as time is available in the legislative programme".

  30.  In the December 2000 Queen's speech, the government announced that it would produce a draft strategic exports bill. Whilst Amnesty International UK will certainly participate in this second consultation exercise on the subject, we are very disappointed at the failure to commit parliamentary time to legislation and that we may have to look to another Parliament to remedy a shortcoming identified in the Scott Report of February 1996.


    (o)  The Government should further improve its Annual Report on Strategic Exports by detailing the number of weapons in each licence for all categories, details of end-users and information on licenses refused;

    (p)  Government measures on arms brokering should include a registration and a licensing system for brokers;

    (q)  Licensed production deals should be brought within the licensing system;

    (r)  The Government should publish its draft strategic exports Bill but move swiftly towards the introduction of legislation.


  31.  Chapter Six of the Annual Report highlights a number of important ways in which the UK's diplomatic missions contribute to human rights. Over the past 12 months, Amnesty International has been aware of a number of instances where UK missions have indeed taken important action, not limited to the activities outlined on page 86. These are welcome but we are by no means certain that such action is common to all UK embassies and high commissions. We hope that the Foreign Office provides opportunities for overseas posts to share experiences and views on best practice with regards to human rights work in their countries.


  32.  Torture is banned by international agreement but in two-thirds of the world's countries it still occurs. Most victims are tortured not just for information but because of what they believe in or who they are. The UK and the wider international community have an important role to play in ending torture. We are pleased that the Foreign Office appears to view the flight against torture as a priority of its human rights work.

  33.  The report notes the publication of the Torture Reporting Handbook in March 2000, written at Essex University and supported by a grant from the Human Rights Project Fund. According to the report 1,500 were distributed in the first few weeks after publication. Amnesty International is also distributing the handbook to its network of contacts and activists.

  34.  We hope that over the next 12 months the FCO will further develop its work in this area. This will certainly involve continued lobbying in support of ratification of the Convention Against Torture. We also hope that the UK will encourage EU partners to also work towards an end to torture in a co-ordinated and strategic manner.

  35.  There are a number of ways in which the EU could take action. It could, for example, use its guidelines for work on the death penalty as a useful model to extend to torture. This might lead to joint demarches in support of CAT ratification or in cases where urgent action may be needed to protect an individual. The EU should also adopt a complete prohibition on the export of all torture equipment.


    (x)  The Government should continue to view the elimination of torture as a foreign policy priority;

    (y)  The Government should encourage co-ordinated EU action against torture;

    (z)  The EU should adopt measures to prohibit the export or brokering of torture equipment from Member States.


  36.  In May 2000, the UN General Assembly adopted the Second Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This optional protocol deals with the involvement of children in armed conflict. It forbids forced or compulsory recruitment of under-18s in armed conflict and require that "all feasible measures" be taken to ensure that under-18s do not take a direct part in hostilities. The UK has signed the protocol but upon signature made a declaration stating that it understood that the OP would not exclude the deployment of under-18 year olds where:

    (a)  there is a genuine military need to deploy their unit or ship to an area in which hostilities are taking place; and

    (b)  reason of the nature and urgency of the situation:

      (i)  it is not practicable to withdraw such persons before deployment; or

      (ii)  to do so would undermine the operational effectiveness of their ship or unit, and thereby put at risk the successful completion of the military mission and/or safety of other personnel.

  37.  We are concerned that this Declaration indicates an unwillingness by the UK Government to change its policy on deployment, and undermines their support for the optional protocol.


    (cc)  The UK should ratify the Second Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child without reservation.

3   Amnesty International UK, Human Rights Audit 2000 UK Foreign and Asylum Policy (September 2000). Back

4   Foreign Affairs Committee Tenth Report Session 1999-2000, China, Vol 1 paragraphs 91-93. Back

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