The FCO's human rights work in 2011 - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents


Summary

We welcome the considerable effort which has gone into the preparation of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's 2011 Human Rights and Democracy Report, which is seen as authoritative and comprehensive. Our only substantial criticism of the report itself is the absence of any systematic evaluation of the Department's human rights policies and initiatives, and we recommend that the FCO experiment in the next report with introducing accountability measures for some of its human rights programmes, for instance by setting benchmarks, targets and indicators.

Countries of concern

The FCO has extended the list of 'countries of concern', where human rights failings are serious and to which the FCO wants to draw particular attention. While we believe that the designation of 'countries of concern' serves a useful purpose in stating in a very public fashion that the UK believes that human rights in those countries fall well short of what is deemed acceptable internationally, the criteria for designation remain vague, and the practice can appear inconsistent and restrictive. We recommend that decisions on designation should be based purely on assessments of human rights standards and should not be coloured by external factors, such as strategic considerations or the UK's ability to influence developments. Given the Bahraini authorities' brutal repression of demonstrators in February and March 2011, we believe that Bahrain should have been designated as a country of concern in the FCO's 2011 report on human rights and democracy.

It is inevitable that the UK will have strategic, commercial or security-related interests which have the potential to conflict with its human rights values. In our view, it would be in the Government's interest for it to be more transparent in acknowledging that there will be contradictions in pursuing these interests while promoting human rights values. The Government's role should be publicly to set out and explain its judgments on how far to balance the two in particular cases, having taken into account the need to adapt policy according to local circumstances and developments.

Removal and deportation

The UK is committed, as a state party to the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, not to return a person to another state where there are substantial grounds for believing that they would be placed at risk of torture on their return. Yet there are persistent allegations that asylum-seekers who have been returned to Sri Lanka by the UK have suffered torture and ill-treatment. When we tried to explore the issue, the Government was not particularly forthcoming about its efforts—in general and in specific cases—to assess the level of risk to the safety of those who are removed from the UK. We found this unsatisfactory. We encourage the FCO to be energetic in evaluating reports by non-governmental organisations and media sources of torture of deportees from the UK. The Government should also clarify the division between the roles of the FCO and of the UK Border Agency's Country of Origin Information Service in gathering the intelligence needed to make accurate assessments of risk.

Deportation with assurances

We share the unease held by others with the Government's deportation with assurances (DWA) policy, and we conclude that DWA arrangements would command greater confidence if both parties to the agreement were to have signed the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention Against Torture (OPCAT), which would signify that the states concerned permitted regular independent monitoring of places and conditions of detention. We recommend that Parliament should be informed of the names of those responsible for monitoring conditions, and the arrangements made for follow-up monitoring. We also believe that DWA arrangements are of such significance that the text of each future arrangement should be laid before Parliament and should not come into force before 14 sitting days have elapsed, during which time Members may signify any objection.

Burma

The EU's decision in April partially to suspend sanctions against Burma, in recognition of the more reformist approach adopted by the Burmese authorities in 2011, needed to be finely judged, given continuing evidence of human rights abuses in Kachin and Rakhine States and the continued detention of political prisoners. However, we are satisfied that enough progress towards reform has been made in Burma to justify some relaxation of the EU's sanctions regime, although we are in no doubt that Burma's human rights record remains seriously blemished. The UK can and should build on the current climate of goodwill to press for wider reform, including access to those still held in detention as political prisoners or for political offences or for politically-motivated reasons. We also recommend that the UK urge the Burmese authorities to permit independent observers to visit Rakhine State, to gather objective evidence on the extent to which the rights of the Rohingya minority are being respected.

Boycotts of international events

We find it difficult to discern any consistency of logic behind the Government's policy in not taking a public stance on whether sponsors, drivers or the media should boycott the Bahrain Grand Prix, but implementing at least a partial boycott of 2012 UEFA European Football Championship matches played in Ukraine.

Denial of visas for entry to the UK

The Government does not routinely publicise the identity of individuals denied a visa to enter the UK, and it has resisted calls to make public any denial of visas to enter the UK for those who held responsibility in the chain of events which led to the death of Mr Sergei Magnitsky in pre-trial detention in Russia in 2009. However, we believe that, when used sparingly, publicising the names of those denied entry on human rights grounds could be a valuable tool in drawing attention to the UK's determination to uphold high standards of human rights, and we recommend that the Government make use of it.

Business and human rights

We welcome the Government's intention to develop a Business and Human Rights Strategy. It appears, however, that the Strategy will be couched exclusively in terms of guidance and voluntary initiatives, which do not on their own meet the spirit of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which envisage a mix of policies, legislation, regulation and adjudication. We recommend that the Government should not dismiss out of hand the extension of extra-territorial jurisdiction to cover actions overseas by businesses based in the UK, or by firms operating under contract to the UK Government, which have an impact on human rights. We recommend that the Government should consider linking provision of Government procurement opportunities, investment support and export credit guarantees to UK businesses' human rights records overseas.

Arms trade and human rights

We were surprised to discover that the FCO Minister responsible for human rights appeared not to have been consulted by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills on the list of priority markets for forthcoming arms exports, and that the overlap between priority market countries and 'countries of concern' was not brought to his attention. We believe that it should have been, and steps should be taken to prevent such lapses in the sharing of information on arms exports between Ministers.




 
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Prepared 17 October 2012