Publications on the internet
Taken before the Foreign Affairs Committee
on Tuesday 19 June 2012
Richard Ottaway (Chair)
Mr Bob Ainsworth
Mr John Baron
Sir Menzies Campbell
Mr Frank Roy
Sir John Stanley
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses:Mr Jeremy Browne MP, Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Vijay Rangarajan, Director of Multilateral Policy, Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Irfan Siddiq, Head of Arab Partnership Department, Foreign and Commonwealth Office gave evidence.
Q70 Chair: I welcome members of the public to this second evidence session of the Committee’s inquiry into the FCO’s human rights work in 2011. I also welcome Mr Jeremy Browne, the Minister of State in the Foreign Office with responsibility for this area.
Minister, when you open I would be grateful if you could introduce your two colleagues. Do you want to make an opening statement or go straight into questions?
Mr Browne: I have not prepared an opening statement, because I did not anticipate you asking me to make one. I could improvise one, or shall we go straight into questions?
Chair: Let us get on with it.
Mr Browne: Why don’t my colleagues introduce themselves?
Vijay Rangarajan: I am Vijay Rangarajan. I am director for multilateral policy in the Foreign Office. I am responsible for the UN, international organisations, human rights and conflict.
Irfan Siddiq: I am Irfan Siddiq, head of the Arab Partnership Department in the Foreign Office. I am here to cover Middle East and north Africa issues.
Chair: I give a warm welcome to both of you.
Minister, the report is longer than it has been in the past. Is it any better?
Mr Browne: I hope so. We do not measure the value or the quality of the report merely by the number of pages it contains, but it is certainly an extremely comprehensive document. Producing it is hugely time consuming within the Department. It is worth drawing the Committee’s attention to just how many hours of work go into compiling the report not only in the relevant Department in London but in our posts around the world which draw intelligence and submit their ideas. It is a very substantial body of work. I am sure that it is capable of being improved upon, but it is a gold-standard piece of work and it is regarded as such by Foreign Affairs Departments in other countries.
Q71 Chair: Are there any substantial changes from last year in its format or presentation?
Mr Browne: There are some minor changes, I think. We are constantly keeping under review the content, and two countries have been added to the countries of concern-Fiji and South Sudan. It is an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary process of change. We have also introduced a significant change beyond the actual physical document. As you rightly said, this is an overview of the calendar year 2011, but we have also introduced a mechanism for quarterly updates, which gives us a bit more flexibility. Otherwise the criticism that people sometimes make is that here we are halfway through 2012, and in the last few months there have been particular concerns about country x, but they do not appear to feature prominently in the most recent report. We would respond, "Well, obviously the report would not cover the last few months. It covers the calendar year 2011." We are trying to have that extra flexibility so that when situations become of greater concern, we do not have to wait until the following year’s report before we have a formal mechanism for drawing people’s attention to them. Also, if I am being positive about it, if there is improvement in one of the countries of concern we want to have an ability to reflect that improvement in our quarterly report as well.
Q72 Chair: I agree and I welcome that-it is one of the joys of modern technology.
In the process of preparing the report you receive the advice of an advisory group. Could you tell us more about the function of the group? Is it to allow them to make the points that they want, or is it to answer your questions?
Mr Browne: For the avoidance of confusion, let me say that the report is not really the product of the meetings of the advisory group. Everything we do is informed by the advisory group, but the report is compiled by the relevant section of the Foreign Office, drawing on the insights of our missions around the world, regardless of the advisory group. So it is not a compilation of the conversations we have had in that forum.
The advisory group offers extra firepower to our knowledge and consideration about human rights. It has many different valuable aspects. One is that we can draw on the insights and knowledge of people who take a keen interest in human rights issues; but it is also a good opportunity for them. Chief executives of significant NGOs have the opportunity to sit for an extended period with the Foreign Secretary and bring to his attention their areas of greatest concern. We can draw on their knowledge and insights, but they can inform us at the same time.
Q73 Chair: Can they offer advice at any time? Do they have to meet in a formal setting, or do they drop in? What are the mechanics?
Mr Browne: We have the main advisory group, which the Foreign Secretary chairs and which meets every six months, and three sub-groups to the advisory group-one on torture, one on the death penalty and one on internet freedom-which meet periodically as well. There is a general understanding that if members of the advisory group-I always say this, because I chair the sub-groups and attend the main meeting that the Foreign Secretary chairs-have a particular area of concern or interest or an insight to impart, they should not feel that they have to wait until the next formal opportunity to raise it with us. We have a department within the Foreign Office which I hope is alert to new ideas and new thinking-I am sure that they are-and people should feel free to phone or e-mail them in order to draw issues to their attention.
Q74 Sir Menzies Campbell: I wonder if I might press you a little on the question of countries of concern. What is the purpose of identifying a country as being a country of concern? Is it simply to name and shame, or does doing so trigger a different kind of response from the Foreign Office towards that country-for example, more resources being expended here in London; additional staff in the post abroad; the use of leverage, perhaps, through military or development assistance? That is a question of two halves, I suppose, but it seems to me that they are quite obviously linked. Putting it colloquially, what’s the point?
Mr Browne: It is all of those things. Part of the purpose is to name and shame, as you put it-to demonstrate our disapproval-but it also provides a framework for the priorities of the Department, for Ministers. Of course, there is a judgment call to be made. It is difficult, because there are some countries that any reasonable person would include-the China and Iran end of the scale. At the other end of the scale are countries that you very obviously would not include-the Scandinavians, for example, are pretty good-but the question is how many you do include. There are judgment calls in the middle. You could have 35, 40 or 45 countries, but you would then dilute the impact of being included-that is the tension. The other difficulty is that over time we should be looking, where we can, to take countries off the list. It would be depressing if we felt that no country ever improved enough to be removed from the country of concern list, although of course that would require mature political debate because it is unlikely that a country will go from being a country of concern to an enlightened and benign liberal democracy in one step. The question is whether concern about them has sufficiently lessened so that they no longer need to be on the list even though there are still concerns about them. The quarterly process gives us the opportunity perhaps to indicate where progress is being made and where a country could, if it makes further progress, come off the list. It does inform the priorities that we give to those countries.
Vijay Rangarajan: I want to add two things. First, in addition in the report is an innovation, a series of four case studies, so there is a category of countries in between those formerly of concern where there is a problem and we are flagging it for analysis and reporting during the year. Secondly, to return to your question, countries of concern are the priority for the Human Rights and Democracy Programme funding that we have, so they take precedence in the allocation of funding and we seek out projects in those particular countries too.
Q75 Sir Menzies Campbell: Does that result in reallocation of resources within the Foreign Office here in London?
Vijay Rangarajan: The countries of concern are the ones that receive the £5 million of dedicated human rights funding, so when a country is added to that list they then become eligible and we focus resources upon them.
Sir Menzies Campbell: Forgive me; I asked an imprecise question. I was thinking of the resources of the Foreign Office in the sense of particular people being transferred from one section to another, or something of that kind. If there is a desk that deals with the country concerned, does that desk get reinforced in terms of personnel?
Vijay Rangarajan: It does not necessarily get reinforced in terms of people, but it does gain several structural changes. We look for much better human rights reporting from those countries. In the Human Rights and Democracy department especially, we will be looking for a particular stream of reporting and to see more of a country strategy reflected there. The place from which the resources will come is the project funding, which will probably mean they get extra people, if needed, to run the funding.
Sir Menzies Campbell: Do Ministers have the final say as to whether a country should be so described?
Vijay Rangarajan: Yes.
Sir Menzies Campbell: We are going to hear some evidence later today on the issue of the Commonwealth. How frequent is it for a Commonwealth country to be regarded as a country of concern and what efforts are taken through the mechanism of the Commonwealth to first identify such a country and secondly try to persuade it to mend its ways?
Jeremy Browne: Well, you can see the list of countries of concern. I had not thought of it in those terms. There are one or two Commonwealth countries, but they do not feature heavily. In the case of Zimbabwe, for example, the very reason it is not a Commonwealth country is that it is a country of concern. We would use whatever means we have. There is only one country of concern in Europe, depending on how you define it. Belarus is in the main geographic body of Europe, so we might feel that the European Union had some scope to bring about change there. The Commonwealth may be a good mechanism for trying to bring about positive changes in countries such as Sri Lanka, Pakistan or Fiji, and our strong partnership with Australia, New Zealand and other Pacific island countries is an opportunity to bring pressure to bear there. The Commonwealth is a mechanism, but it is one of many.
Q76 Sir Menzies Campbell: Is there a crossroads between the interests of the United Kingdom-financial or military, for example-and conduct by the Government of such a country that would justify its being described as a country of concern? Who balances these issues in reaching a final ministerial decision?
Jeremy Browne: Ultimately the decision is made by the Foreign Secretary, but I am not sure that a balance is calibrated in the way you suggest. For example, China is the second biggest economy in the world. It is continuing to grow strongly and it is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, so in every way it is a hugely influential country, economically and politically. Yet I did not hear any discussion suggesting that it should no longer be a country of concern just because we have many other diplomatic, commercial, cultural interests with the Chinese. I think the exercise is conducted on its own merits, and if we feel that a country such as China, which has widespread human rights abuses, warrants being a country of concern, then it is made a country of concern regardless of other considerations.
Q77 Sir Menzies Campbell: What considerations have been given to Bahrain and whether it should be identified as a country of concern?
Jeremy Browne: As Vijay was just saying, in addition to the 28 countries of concern, we have the four case study countries, which are, if you like, in a waiting room for potentially being added to the list countries of concern if we feel that that is warranted over the course of 2012. Bahrain is one of those four. Maybe I should defer to others, because I am not the Minister who covers the Gulf and the Middle East, so I do not travel in that part of the world or devote specific time to it, beyond the human rights brief. My understanding of the situation in Bahrain is, however, that it is materially different from, say, Syria. We have more traction with the Government in Bahrain and there are reasons to believe that our engagement and the engagement of others can bring about positive changes in Bahrain in a way that we have less hope for in some other countries in the Gulf and the Middle East. At the same time, we are concerned about the human rights situation there, and its sort of indeterminate status reflects that assessment.
Irfan Siddiq: There were two major developments in Bahrain last year. First, the uprisings, and the way they were dealt with by the authorities, were a huge cause of concern. Also there was the unprecedented step of the establishment of the Bahrain independent commission of inquiry, which for the region was a huge breakthrough. This is a credible, independent panel which works directly to the King, stressing and laying out all the key human rights concerns and violations that had occurred, and asking him to deal with those, which he accepted, and some of which have been implemented. Last year was a mixed one, with some negative developments and some positive ones, which is why it has not graduated onto the list of countries of concern.
Q78 Sir Menzies Campbell: One last question: did we make any representations about the treatment of doctors and nurses whose only fault appears to have been a willingness to give medical attention to people who have been injured?
Jeremy Browne: In Bahrain? Irfan, could you remind us?
Irfan Siddiq: Yes. Especially during the period of the uprising itself there were huge concerns about how peaceful protests were being repressed, and the way in which medical professionals who were trying to do their job in providing medical support to protesters were also being punished by the regime for that. We were very disappointed with the military trials that took place and were pleased that the trials were re-run through civilian courts, recently.
Q79 Ann Clwyd: I just want to look at the description of the Bahrain commission of inquiry as independent. I do not think it can in any way be considered to be independent. It was set up by the King. It is just not independent.
Jeremy Browne: As I was saying before, if you wanted an in-depth conversation with a Minister about what we are doing in the Gulf and Middle East, then Alistair Burt is the relevant Minister, and is better placed to have that conversation than I am. But in terms of the human rights report, we are not-I hope I was reassuring in the previous answer, when I gave China as the example-looking to exclude countries from the list of countries of concern because of wider considerations. There is no hidden agenda. If we judge that human rights offences in Bahrain are sufficiently grave that it warrants being included, then it will be included. However, I go back to my earlier point. I can probably cite 50 or more countries in the world where there are human rights issues of concern. The danger is that if you put in every single country, you dilute the impact of being one of the countries that is included. I hope we are doing this in good faith. The best way to guard against accusations that we are giving people a free pass would be to include over 100 countries. For example, we could include every country that has the death penalty.
Ann Clwyd: I did not ask that question.
Mr Browne: Sorry, but sometimes we beat ourselves up a bit too much. In my two years’ experience as a Minister-
Chair: Minister, Ms Clwyd has asked a perfectly straightforward question.
Q80 Ann Clwyd: I was just making that point and moving on. I think the point has been made.
In our report last year, it was suggested that you should have an index to the report. Several outside organisations made that point as well. If it is to be a useful reference book, then it should have an index, but you have not reinstated it. Are you thinking about that again?
Mr Browne: I have not had this conversation. It seems quite easy to navigate, but given the amount of work that goes into it, it seems a shame if people cannot find the sections of greatest interest to them, so we will seek to do that.
Q81 Ann Clwyd: If it is to be a proper reference book, it should have an index. That is the point this Committee made last year and no doubt it will be making it again.
Vijay Rangarajan: It has a contents section. The online version is fully searchable and people said to us that that was as useful. To put in a complete index, which was properly comprehensive, would both have delayed it and added quite a lot to the cost. We were also trying to keep this as cheap as possible.
Q82 Ann Clwyd: Yes, we know the argument about cost, because you made it last time, but outside organisations have made the point to us that if it is to be a useful reference book, it should have an index. I will leave it at that.
Looking at the report, which is pretty large, my feeling is that it is too self-promotional-Foreign Office self-promotional. There seems to be no analysis or evaluation of what worked, what has not worked and what could be done better. Do you accept that?
Mr Browne: The danger is that if the Foreign office does not tell people what it is doing, people assume that we are not doing things; but if we do tell people what we are doing, we run the risk of appearing self-promotional.
Q83 Ann Clwyd: My point is that there is no evaluation of policies. I remember from my days on the International Development Committee that whenever there were programmes, for instance, in certain countries, there would then be outside evaluations of the success or otherwise of those programmes. That was always quite useful when deciding whether policies were good, bad or indifferent.
Mr Browne: Sometimes the difficulty with human rights evaluation is that if these countries on the list shared all our values and were readily responsive to being persuaded by us, then they probably would not be on the list in the first place. We are very active on human rights work in-I will cite again probably the biggest example-China. I was in China about a month ago and my programme included quite a lot of human rights activity. However, it is quite hard to evaluate a causal link between what we are doing in the embassy or in ministerial visits, and outcomes in China. Certainly I would imagine that the Chinese Government would be very reluctant to acknowledge a causal link, even if one existed. Yes, where you can demonstrate that connection in our activity, it is a good idea to demonstrate it. However, I would caution against thinking that we could end up having a document with a scientific demonstration; that if you put in x amount of time and x amount of money, you get out x amount of human rights progress. It is quite a long haul in some of these countries and it is hard to do.
Q84 Sir John Stanley: Minister, in February, your colleague the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills published the Government’s list of countries that were going to be its top arms export markets for this year. A few weeks later, in April, you and your Department published a list of countries of concern for human rights. Were you personally consulted by Dr Cable as to which countries should feature in what is called the priority of markets list-the list of countries that will receive top arms export attention from the British Government?
Mr Browne: The Foreign Office would certainly be consulted. I cannot recall having a conversation, or substantive conversation, on that issue, but we have the ability to make representations throughout Government about foreign policy aspects of the work of other Departments, and we do so.
Q85 Sir John Stanley: I am surprised and disappointed that you were not personally consulted. For the record, could you tell us which countries feature both on the Department for Business list of top arms export markets and on your list of countries of concern for human rights?
Mr Browne: I cannot. I do not have the Business Department’s list, so I cannot cross-reference.
Q86 Sir John Stanley: Again, I find it disappointing that you are not familiar with the content of the two lists, particularly the countries that appear on both. Saudi Arabia and Libya appear both on the top priority markets list and, of course, on your countries of concern list. Do you not think it is highly detrimental to the credibility of the Government’s human rights policy that countries that feature as countries of concern as far as human rights are concerned also feature on the official Government list of countries for top arms export attention?
Mr Browne: The others may wish to contribute, but I would make the observation that a country that buys arms may not necessarily use those arms to perpetrate human rights abuses. You could, for example-this is a hypothetical example-have a country that has human rights abuses but also faces a threat from a neighbouring country that is an even worse offender and have no reason to believe that certain categories of armaments would be used for any other purpose than to repel the threat from the aggressive neighbour, rather than to perpetrate abuses within their own country. As I said, that is a hypothetical example. Certainly, where licences are being granted, there is a thorough mechanism for checking whether we feel that there is any credible reason to believe that those weapons will be used for the suppression of human rights.
I will give you an example of a country within my geographic remit: Colombia. There is not an absolute embargo on all military equipment being sold to Colombia, but if we made an assessment that it may reasonably be believed that that equipment might be used to abuse human rights, the licence would not be granted. If, on the other hand, the licence was for a particular type of night-vision binoculars used by naval patrol vessels to stop drug smuggling in Colombia, for example, the licence may be granted, even though it comes under a category of military equipment.
Do you understand the point I am making? I would not automatically assume that there is an incompatibility. I know that that may appear to be the case, but I would not automatically assume there is an incompatibility between featuring on the two lists.
Q87 Sir John Stanley: Minister, I fully appreciate the point you are making that, say, a complex air defence system would not necessarily relate to internal repression of human rights. Would you like to tell the Committee whether you consider that these items, which the Government have approved quite recently by way of arms exports to Saudi Arabia, fall within your category of defence systems: components for sniper rifles; gun silencers; small arms ammunition; sniper rifles; technology for sniper rifles; assault rifles; components for assault rifles; general purpose machine guns; and components for machine pistols? I could go on.
Mr Browne: Let me draw on the others because they will help to inform the Committee better. My experience of when required ministerial approval is needed for export of the type of equipment that you have said is when we have reason to believe that that equipment will be used for the suppression of human rights. To put it bluntly, there are all kinds of items that could be used to suppress human rights. A knife could be used to suppress human rights. We have to have reason to believe that the military in a given country has a history of, or an intention of, using the weapons that are being exported for the suppression of human rights rather than for what we would regard as legitimate means. If we are confident that the usage is legitimate, then a licence could be granted even if, in other ways, that country abuses human rights, but it must not contribute to the human rights abuse.
Vijay Rangarajan: May I add one process issue? On all of the arms exports decisions, the human rights department is consulted and will challenge those on the grounds that the Minister just described. It is not an absolute case of a country of concern having a blanket ban on exports. We go through in detail to look at whether there are concerns about particular types of arms, their use and, again, consult more broadly outside Government on that as well. It does come, in some cases, to a ministerial decision about the likelihood of future risk.
Q88 Chair: Let us come back to the questions about the countries of concern. I agree that if you have 50 countries of concern, it effectively devalues the system. In our last report, we identified just one country that we were concerned about and that we thought should be a country of concern, and that was Bahrain. You have not accepted that. Mr Siddiq has partially answered the question, but we still need a good explanation as to why, say, Vietnam is on the list with concerns about freedom of expression, yet Bahrain is not, even though 35 people have died on its streets. You have to justify why you have rejected our recommendation.
Mr Browne: As I say, it comes to a judgment. As you acknowledged yourself, there are lots of countries in which human rights abuses exist in different forms. One could make a pretty compelling case for including that country on the list. We have put two more countries on the list, and I personally would be keen not to have a sense that every year we had to add two to show that we were remaining vigilant about human rights to the point that we got up to the 50s and 60s. Your representations were appreciated and understood and I hope to a degree-perhaps not as much as you would have liked-have been reflected in the fact that Bahrain has been added in this additional category. As I say, if they warrant inclusion in the judgment of the Department and, ultimately, the Foreign Secretary, they will be included. They feature prominently on our radar, so I can reassure you that what is happening in that country is not going unnoticed.
Q89 Mr Roy: On that point, does not the fact that more than 40 people were murdered during the uprising and that there was an unprecedented amount of arrests, make it slightly worse than other countries in their abuse of human rights? Is not that the ultimate abuse of human rights when so many people were murdered on the streets?
Mr Browne: I have not received, as far as I can recall, a single representation from any pressure group arguing that any of the 28 countries of concern should cease to be a country of concern. Your point about whether it is worse implies that some of the other countries would be taken off the list or excluded from the list. If we feel that the reasons for inclusion are compelling we will include them. It is not an exhaustive list; we do not claim that every single country in the world where human rights abuses take place is on the list. We are trying to make a judgment about where we can mostly likely have an effect and where we can target our resources. That does not mean, to come back to the earlier question from Sir Menzies Campbell, that our embassies in countries that are not on the list are not devoting their energies to trying to improve the human rights situation.
Irfan Siddiq: Can I just add to that? The situation in Bahrain last year was amazingly complex, in terms of both what happened and the nature of the decision making around the royal family, with some elements being much more hard-line than others. We have a huge amount of influence with Bahrain due to our long history, and I think the judgment was that we are in a process whereby the Bahrainis are trying to implement some reforms and there is a dynamic internally where there are different groups trying to push in different ways. Our judgment was that we should engage with those who are trying to effect change in a positive way, and that this measured new category of a case study was a balanced position where we signalled enough concern but did not alienate the Bahrainis in terms of our ability to influence them and send tough messages about what we would like to see change, which we continue to do. If we judge that that process is not going anywhere positive, it may be that next year we decide to change the situation, but while it is still fluid it is reasonable for us to try to maintain our influence and influence the situation in a positive way.
Q90 Mr Roy: It is fair to say that a lot of people’s perception is that it is too fluid. The reason why they are not a country of concern is because there was such a lot of business between the United Kingdom and Bahrain, and maybe it was very uncomfortable to put them as a country of concern. That is the perception.
Mr Browne: That would be a more valid claim if it were not for the fact that there are quite a lot of countries on the list where there is also a substantial amount of business. China, for example-total British trade with China is on a sharp upward trajectory. I do not want to prejudge next year’s report, but I anticipate that China would still be a country of concern.
Q91 Mr Roy: I dare say it will be brought up again. May I take you to the strategy on the prevention of torture in relation to widening the scope, especially in relation to UK policy on reparations for victims of torture? Could those people be brought under the scope of the prevention of torture strategy?
Vijay Rangarajan: There is currently quite a lot of international discussion of reparations. As you know, the UN special representative on torture has brought forward various ideas about an international convention for reparation. On the torture strategy itself, I am not sure we are anticipating that going wider into reparation issues. At the moment, that is primarily focused on the countries where we think we can make a real difference. It is largely on financial prioritisation and where exactly we can run the programmes.
Q92 Mr Roy: Why wouldn’t you consider expanding the scope? That is the question.
Vijay Rangarajan: To include reparation for victims of torture?
Mr Roy: Yes.
Vijay Rangarajan: Partly it is under discussion internationally at the moment, and partly because where, in countries particularly, we can work on reparation issues-often through the rule of law parts of the strategy-we are working on them, but at the moment we are primarily focused on prevention and the accountability parts that follow after that. A lot of our judgments, country by country, on torture prevention are primarily finding the places where it is possible to work with-usually-the criminal justice system concerned.
Q93 Mr Roy: May I move on? How do the Government interpret their responsibilities under the United Nations convention against torture to ensure that victims obtain redress, and fair and adequate compensation? Who is eligible for such support in the United Kingdom?
Jeremy Browne: Sorry. We will have to let you know in writing if we have that information.
Q94 Chair: Is that the answer to both parts of the question?
Jeremy Browne: Yes.
Q95 Chair: You don’t know about the UN convention against torture.
Jeremy Browne: There was a specific point about compensation to British victims of torture.
Q96 Mr Roy: How do the Government interpret their responsibility under the United Nations convention against torture to ensure that victims obtain redress, and fair and adequate compensation? Who is eligible for such support in the United Kingdom?
Jeremy Browne: I don’t know the answer, and I think the Ministry of Justice would lead on that issue rather than the Foreign Office, so I would rather not hazard an imprecise answer. To be frank with the Committee, the reason I am hesitating is that this is not an area that I have been exposed to, and I think that is because it is a Ministry of Justice lead, rather than a Foreign Office lead. In many of these areas, there is obviously overlap between Departments, but that sounds as if it is quite heavily in the Ministry of Justice field, rather than the Foreign Office field.
Vijay Rangarajan: On the domestic application of UN international conventions, the convention against torture is an obvious one, and it is an MOJ lead. We have been working with it in the past on exactly how to do it, and UK prisons were a recent area of work, and on establishing a reporting mechanism so that people who think they have been tortured or maltreated in some way have a mechanism through which the credible allegation gets to the prosecutors in this country. Once that is in place, this country’s criminal justice system then takes over.
Q97 Mr Roy: Surely you interpret whose responsibility the United Nations charter is. Surely the Foreign Office must do that in the first instance-or are you saying you do not?
Vijay Rangarajan: We work with the Ministry of Justice. The obligation to implement OPCAT and the other conventions in legislation falls first on the domestic Department. There is a monitoring mechanism for most of those conventions. The MOJ and the FCO together seek to justify our implementation in each case, and have done so on all the UN and other conventions, but then the domestic processes that allow for things such as redress are the responsibility of the domestic Department.
If we think that we are not fulfilling our international obligations-this comes up sometimes during universal periodic review-we do indeed have a discussion, including of course with the Attorney-General’s office about the legality of how we have implemented various conventions.
Q98 Mr Roy: Okay. So you will write to us, Minister.
Jeremy Browne: Yes, I will.
Q99 Mr Roy: In relation to Sir Peter Gibson’s detainee inquiry, the Prime Minister announced in July 2010 that the inquiry had been set up. It is now two years later. Has it been set up? Has it started? If not, why not?
Jeremy Browne: Yes, but it has been suspended due to a police investigation, but it will be continued when it is suitable to continue it and conclude it.
Q100 Mr Roy: But you don’t know when.
Jeremy Browne: I think it will be when the police investigation has run its course, and it is appropriate.
Q101 Mr Roy: So it has actually been set up, and has started running. That was not my understanding. Are you saying it has been set up and has started, but it was stopped?
Vijay Rangarajan: The Gibson inquiry was set up and ran, and then there was a pause. I think there was a statement in the House pausing it because of the discovery of additional evidence in, I think, Libya, which then led to police investigations that I believe are currently under way.
Q102 Mr Roy: But nothing is happening just now.
Jeremy Browne: I think that continuation of the inquiry at the same time as police investigations were taking place was thought to be improper, so the inquiry has been frozen, or suspended, until the police investigations have run their course. It will then be possible to continue the inquiry. The commitment remains to conclude the inquiry to maturity, but it is impossible, given the police investigation, to put a precise date on when that will happen.
Q103 Mr Roy: We have heard concerns from other witnesses about the transparency of the process. Will the whole process indeed be transparent?
Vijay Rangarajan: If memory serves me right, the Prime Minister asked Sir Peter Gibson to publish an interim report, which we expect fairly soon. That would say what the inquiry has been doing. As you say, it has been 18 months since it was set up. We are now in the process of police inquiries; it would then restart once there is no risk of damaging any potential prosecutions.
Q104 Mr Roy: Yes, but as I just said, human rights witnesses raised concerns about the transparency of that process. Have those concerns been taken on board?
Mr Browne: The instincts of the Government would be to make it as transparent as possible, consistent with legitimate national security concerns.
Q105 Sir John Stanley: As the Foreign Office’s human rights Minister, were you involved in and consulted upon, or possibly did you approve, the British Government’s submission to the EU on its current review of the EU torture goods regulation?
Mr Browne: I do not have specific recollection. I might have been consulted by having a piece of paper put before me. I do not routinely have a heavy involvement in EU issues, because I am not the Europe Minister.
Q106 Sir John Stanley: You are the human rights Minister. I find it surprising and disappointing that the human rights Minister, on an issue as important as the current review of the EU torture goods regulation, was apparently left unsighted. Is that not a matter of concern to you?
Mr Browne: I am sort of confident that the Department has a clear sense of the Government’s priorities on human rights. I have a close involvement with human rights issues. When decisions are to be made that are appropriately taken at ministerial level, I am satisfied that Ministers are leading that process. I do not think there is any institutional doubt within the Foreign Office about the priority we attach as a Government to human rights or the particular issues that we wish the Department to prioritise. I hope they are doing that and I have no reason to believe they are not.
Q107 Sir John Stanley: We are talking about torture and goods that can be used for torture, and the EU’s policy as to the availability and possible shipment of those goods. Are you able to tell us the British Government’s objectives, aims and expectations as to what they can achieve by the outcome of the EU’s review of the EU torture goods regulation?
Mr Browne: My experience in my two years as a Minister, and before then as a Member of Parliament, is that the British Government are as vigilant about trying to protect human rights as any country in the world. Where we can find forums of like-minded countries that will assist us in improving human rights, we will do so, and would be right to do so. The EU is an obvious forum, because there is a high degree of compatibility between the values of member states. We are keen to use that advice.
I was asked earlier about the Commonwealth; that would apply to the Commonwealth as well. It would apply to a whole web of relations we have with different parts of the world.
Q108 Sir John Stanley: I asked you a specific question, Minister, and you have given me an empty generalisation. If you cannot answer that specific question today, will you please give us an answer in writing? What are the objectives of the British Government as far as the outcome of the EU’s review of the EU torture goods regulation?
Vijay Rangarajan: I will just add one point. This goes rather to the heart of how the human rights department works, which is that human rights are, in the jargon, "mainstreamed" through pretty much all the work of certainly the Foreign Office, but also of other Departments, so not everything that has a human rights component necessarily comes to Mr Browne. Most judgments on foreign policy have a human rights component of some kind. Pretty much every speaking note of every Minister talking to every other Government has an element of it. What tends to happen is that they consult the human rights department, and we then set out an overall policy on, say, that country or that theme.
In the case of torture equipment and its export, the UK has a fairly clear policy and set of procedures. While we can write on the detail of exactly what we are pursuing on the technical detail of the EU regulation that will follow, we certainly advised on what the UK’s overall policy is on the export of goods that could be used for torture. The decisions on each of these negotiations or contacts with others are taken by the relevant Ministers, all of whom have a responsibility for human rights within their countries or their themes. We do not bring them all to Mr Browne for a decision in every case.
Q109 Sir John Stanley: Given that the British Government have made a submission to the EU Commission as to what they wish to achieve as a result of the EU’s review of the torture goods regulation, can I, Minister, have an assurance that we will have an answer in writing to my question as to what the British Government wish to achieve as a result of the review, please?
Mr Browne: Yes.
Q110 Chair: May I remind you of something? Sir John Stanley is talking about the EU convention. A few minutes ago, Frank Roy was talking about the UN convention, which you seemed a bit vague on. In October last year, you published a 16-page guidance document for foreign posts overseas about your torture strategy, including a covering statement from yourself in which you spoke about the importance of "working in partnership with other countries and organisations". I hope that when you do reply to Sir John you bear it in mind that you have set a benchmark, and we hope that we can get some detailed answers on these points.
Mr Browne: Yes.
Sir Menzies Campbell: The Chairman would quite rightly not allow me to reopen the question of countries of concern, but it occurs to me, having considered your evidence in that respect and having considered the more recent evidence in relation to torture, that what we are really getting at is whether, in the application of its policies in these matters, the Foreign Office is able to exercise a degree of consistency. If the perception is that inconsistent decisions are being made, that necessarily undermines the quality of the policy decisions. Can you assure us that consistency lies at the forefront of these matters? What steps are being taken to ensure an across-the-board consistency in decision making?
Mr Browne: Yes, I can give you that assurance and for the reason that Vijay said, which is that the Government, and the Foreign Office specifically, have a clear policy stance on torture and torture and that is well understood by officials in the Department. That stance is communicated and applied consistently whether in discussions in one part of the world or in another. By necessity, different Ministers or ambassadors will be leading on the details of some of those conversations in any given circumstance. The task for the Minister-to come back to earlier points made by Sir John and others-is to be satisfied that the overall policy is the right policy, and not necessarily to micro-manage the details of the application of that policy if the Minister is satisfied that the policy is being adhered to. I am satisfied that that is the case, and I am satisfied it is consistently applied.
Q111 Mr Ainsworth: Minister, your report says that you will continue to seek new deportation with assurance arrangements in 2012, but you won’t say with which countries you are having those discussions. Surely if Parliament knew and other organisations knew and were able to comment on the pitfalls to such arrangements, that might lead to better decision making. Why will you not say which countries you are having those discussions with?
Mr Browne: I do not know which countries we are having the discussions with. I do not know of an exhaustive list. I am sure that, at particular occasions, a country-[Interruption.] I think it would be a Home Office lead, but obviously they would be informed by the Foreign Office and other Departments, as and when there were insights that we could provide. The Jordanian example has been the most high profile. It is the Home Secretary who has taken the lead on that process, but obviously we can provide insights through our embassy in Amman, through our knowledge of the political system in Jordan.
We are informing those processes and we have an absolute position that people will not be deported if we believe that they will be subjected to torture. As you know very well, Mr Ainsworth, from observing the political debate and from your time in government, there is an understandable political pressure to deport people who ought not to be in this country and whom we have good reason to believe are a threat to national security. If we have suitable assurances about their treatment, I think most people would regard that as a reasonable process.
Q112 Mr Ainsworth: Your report goes on to say that you are thinking about including cases-we are talking about deportation with assurances-"without an overarching framework". Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and others have expressed particular concern about deportations without an overarching framework. What exactly does this mean? What are you referring to? What assurances will there be? In what circumstances will you seek deportation to a country without an overarching framework?
Mr Browne: I am just looking at the note in front of me. It does not add to what I was going to say, which is that my understanding is that there is an assessment made in the case of each individual. We have an overarching belief that no one should be deported if we think they will be subjected to torture, but we also have to satisfy ourselves on the individual case as well, so the safeguards are in place to try to make sure that we achieve our objectives.
Vijay Rangarajan: We are negotiating overarching frameworks where there are a substantial number of people who might need to be deported to that country, and where the Government concerned is willing to have an overarching framework. It does take work on both sides and can take a very long time, as we have seen with Jordan. In some cases, there may be only one person whom we wish to deport to that country, or they may not want to have an overarching framework, but we still need to seek the individualised guarantees about the treatment of that person within that country’s judicial or police system after their return.
Those guarantees-those assurances-are of course tested in our own courts, and in many cases up to the European Court of Human Rights, as to whether they are sufficient to guarantee that person against ill treatment or torture. It is not quite the case that without an overarching framework we would not have any assurances; we would still have a whole lot of assurances. It is just that sometimes we can negotiate blanket assurances to cover all people who are returned. In almost all cases, we will need that, and some individual ones, like the use of a specific witness in a specific case or specific evidence that our courts are unhappy is used.
Q113 Mr Ainsworth: Do you believe that organisations are justified in having particular concerns where there is no overarching framework available and we are seeking deportation to a country that is not prepared or able to give us one?
Mr Browne: I would expect them to be vigilant in seeking out areas of concern and expressing them, because that is their role. That is what the NGOs exist to do-in this case, to be aware of potential abuses of human rights. We, I hope, can reassure them that we are taking the necessary measures to safeguard against abuses that they fear might otherwise take place.
Governments have to try and make a balanced assessment. I could find a group of people who would say that we should never deport with assurances at all. I could find another group of people who would express very strong concerns to me about people who potentially posed a severe threat to national security, and had no right to be in the country in the first place, remaining in the country. We are making a judgment consistent with the values and procedures that I have detailed.
Q114 Mr Ainsworth: You said you would notify Parliament where you have made a new arrangement. Will you give us the detailed texts of those arrangements when they have been agreed?
Mr Browne: That is not a commitment that I feel able to make to this Committee, simply because I do not know whether there are good reasons in the Home Office for having reservations about going down that path. I have not been party to a discussion of that sort, so I feel unable to give you a definitive answer.
Q115 Mr Ainsworth: Okay. Let us move on to a particular instance. We have deported individuals to Sri Lanka. There was a report in The Guardian on 5 June that claimed that a former member of the Tamil Tigers had been deported, and there was good intelligence that this individual had been tortured. That report also said that the Foreign Office felt that it was safe to continue deportations to Sri Lanka. Is that so?
Mr Browne: I do not recall having read the individual report in The Guardian, but for all the countries where we consider deportation we are looking at a framework agreement. We are making a case-by-case study, so it is not in any way a cavalier procedure. We have to be satisfied that our expectations will be met for any person who is deported in future. That is what we continue to try and achieve.
Q116 Mr Ainsworth: Would you come back to us and tell us what the present position is on whether or not the Foreign Office believes that it is still safe to deport people to Sri Lanka?
Mr Browne: We can, yes. The point I am making is that where there are grounds to deport people, we are looking to deport them if they have no basis for being in the country and there are all kinds of potential risks that they pose, but it is not an absolute commitment. Where we feel that the risks of deportation override the benefits, we will stop those procedures taking place. That safeguard exists. If we thought that it was-
Q117 Mr Ainsworth: But you have had a report that states there is a risk of torture in Sri Lanka. You must surely have done an evaluation of whether that report has foundation. You must surely have a view on whether, from the point of view of the risk of torture, it is safe to deport people to Sri Lanka.
Mr Browne: But with nearly every country that we would deport to with assurances there is some risk. That is why we seek to have the assurances. Were we to say that nobody would be deported with assurances to any country where there was a risk-again it is a circular argument. Sure, the problem is that we have people we wish to deport who do not originate from benign, liberal, tolerant countries. That is why we have to put these extra safeguards in place. Yes we are deporting people to countries where we have grounds for concern about what is happening. That is precisely the reason for seeking assurances, but if we think that the assurances are not being honoured or that the overall situation in the country is so insecure or badly administered that the assurances are not worth the paper they are written on, then obviously we would discontinue the process.
Q118 Mr Ainsworth: But that is precisely the question. You have had allegations that people who have been deported have been tortured. I want to know whether you still think that those assurances from that particular country are valid.
Mr Browne: If the allegations are substantiated then that would be a reason to discontinue. We cannot discontinue every time there is a newspaper article.
Q119 Mr Ainsworth: I understand that, which is why I am asking the question.
Mr Browne: The point I am making is that if we discontinued deportation with assurances to every country where there was a newspaper article saying that bad things had happened in that country we would never deport anybody. The whole reason why we seek assurances is precisely because there are bad things happening in those countries. We have to have assurances that those bad things won’t happen to the particular individual we are deporting. The fact that a newspaper has managed to find that there are abuses of human rights happening in countries where deportation with assurances take place-well, exactly. That is why we need the assurances. That does not strike me as a particularly dramatic media revelation.
Q120 Mr Ainsworth: I am not asking you about a media revelation. I am asking you about your assessment of those reports.
Mr Browne: My understanding is that we have not had substantiated reasons to believe that deportation with assurances is in all circumstances inappropriate to Sri Lanka. If we did have those fears substantiated then we would stop the deportation, in this case to Sri Lanka, but if we judge it possible to deport people with the assurances and we feel confident that those assurances will be honoured then we would continue to look at opportunities where they were appropriate.
Q121 Ann Clwyd: You have talked a lot about assurances. How do you monitor compliance with assurances?
Vijay Rangarajan: For example, in the case of Jordan-it depends a bit country by country whether we trust various organs of the state-there will be an NGO or an independent person appointed to monitor the assurances and to monitor the treatment.
Q122 Ann Clwyd: An NGO appointed by whom?
Vijay Rangarajan: This would be somebody appointed by the British Government. We would be choosing somebody who is independent of the Government and independent of the host Government to stay in contact. It could be a lawyer, it could be an NGO. Our embassy in that country usually also has a role in monitoring the condition of the people who are then returned afterwards.
Q123 Ann Clwyd: A lot of NGOs have monitored what is happening in Sri Lanka. They are very clear what has happened there and what is happening there, so what assurances have they given to you that the assurances that have been given to you by the country are being complied with in the case of Sri Lanka?
Vijay Rangarajan: We have tried to substantiate some of these. We do not have substantiated evidence that Sri Lanka has broken the assurances. There is certainly a substantial amount of maltreatment and torture in Sri Lanka, but we do not yet have substantiated evidence that the people whom we have returned through the assurances have been maltreated.
Q124 Ann Clwyd: In the case that has been reported, the member of the Tamil Tigers intelligence service was deported from the UK in June 2011. Has anyone talked to him or her?
Vijay Rangarajan: We do not know the details of who has talked to him or her, but we will certainly find out if we can.
Q125 Sir Menzies Campbell: Sanctions, generally, are in use as a means of expressing displeasure about the conduct of Governments. To what extent do you think that the apparent progressive changes in Myanmar, or Burma, resulted from the application of sanctions?
Mr Browne: That is very interesting. One could write an entire thesis on that very question. My view is that sanctions can and in many cases do have a substantial effect on the politics of a given country. The fact that the Government in Burma are keen for sanctions to be progressively lifted suggests that they see that as part of their passage back to mainstream respectability, so having the sanctions was indicative of their not having that status. I think they can work at a number of different levels, oil sanctions in Iran being a perfect case in point. They can have a more direct painful economic effect, which can bring pressure to bear on a Government. They can also have a wider, symbolic effect on how that country’s Government is viewed. As I said, when countries come to be more responsive or sensitive to international opinion, they can see that symbolic mark of disapproval as something they wish to reverse.
Q126 Sir Menzies Campbell: There is some evidence in history of countries that learned, at least for a while, to live within sanctions regimes, isn’t there? I am thinking, for example, of Ian Smith in Southern Rhodesia. There is also a certain amount of support for the view that the generals in Burma learned to live within the sanctions, not least, of course, because quite a bit of sanction breaking was going on in parallel to the efforts to use sanctions as a means of exerting pressure on them. How far is that taken into account when our Government, our Foreign Office, consider whether to impose sanctions? What assessment do they then make of the success of the sanctions?
Mr Browne: I remember going to live in what was just transitioning from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe in 1980. You are right-every shop had entirely home-produced products, some of which were better than others, but they managed to adapt to the environment in which they found themselves politically.
I think sanctions are a useful tool in our armoury, if you like. I remember saying-a year ago, I think-in front of the Committee that this use may diminish over time. If Britain is the only country that produces product x and we impose sanctions on another country, we cut off 100% supply of that product, but if 10 countries produce product x and some of them are not keen to comply with the sanctions regime for political reasons, we are no longer able to cut off its supply-in fact, we may not even be able to diminish it if other countries step up their supplies to make up our shortfall. We find that situation with Iran, with oil sanctions, where we have an EU sanction on oil, but we are trying to encourage Japanese, South Koreans, and others-Indians, most obviously-not to buy more to offset the reductions in the purchases being made by EU countries. They are an imprecise, imperfect method for bringing pressure to bear, but if you take the topical example of Iran, I think most people think that the British Government should be looking to try to find ways to put pressure on Iran, and this is clearly a way we can, through sanctions.
Q127 Sir Menzies Campbell: You will be familiar with the false foreign policy doctrine which is reflected in the words, "Something must be done". I wonder if the imprecision of sanctions falls within that policy: something has to be done, but there is no appetite for military action or other political activity, so sanctions are the only arrow left in the quiver.
Jeremy Browne: I do not think we should do something just for the sake of doing something.
Q128 Sir Menzies Campbell: Symbolism is important-
Jeremy Browne: Symbolism has something. A lot of people say-in a given scenario, let’s not have a specific case-that we strongly disapprove of what has been happening in country X. In fact, in the last hour, we have been talking about all kinds of countries where we strongly disapprove of what has been happening. We certainly don’t wish to have military conflict with those countries. We think that is a step too far. We need to somehow signal our disapproval of what is happening in that country by means short of warfare. Sanctions are a means short of warfare.
I only observe that the countries that are subjected to sanctions appear not to wish to be subjected to sanctions. It must have some effect. Even in conversations I have with the Chinese, they would rather not be subject to an EU arms embargo, as they are. That is a form of sanctions. To test the proposition, if it did not matter, then they wouldn’t care, but they do appear to care, so one assumes it must matter.
Q129 Sir Menzies Campbell: Aung San Suu Kyi has arrived in Britain and indeed will address both Houses of Parliament later this week. We received communication from your colleague Alistair Burt in February to the effect that for consideration to be given to the raising of EU sanctions against Burma there had to be a release of all political prisoners by 1 April. Have you been monitoring that from the standpoint of human rights, and if so, are you satisfied that that condition has been met?
Mr Jeremy Browne: We are very pleased she is coming to Britain. I think it is her birthday today as well. She has a very full programme here, and lots of people who care deeply about the progress of human rights in Burma, and Burma more generally, will welcome her presence.
The situation in Burma is a finely calibrated one. The Prime Minister has been there recently. The Foreign Secretary went earlier this year. They both went because the assessment of the Government is that significant progress is being made in Burma, in the direction that we would wish. The balance is the degree to which you encourage that progress without anticipating progress that doesn’t exist. That is always the political calibration.
Aung San Suu Kyi does not set British Government policy, but she clearly informs it. She has been keen to make the case that she thinks the changes are genuine, and that countries like Britain should show goodwill and encourage those changes rather than being a sort of backmarker which requires emphatic proof of changes before being willing to change our position ourselves. We are trying to coax further change along, and to reflect that in our overall political approach, rather than saying that we will wait until we have something that represents an entirely satisfactory picture before we consider making any changes.
We are trying to move in tandem with the changes that are taking place in Burma, but we are always open either to the charge that we have got ahead of ourselves slightly and are anticipating changes that are yet to materialise fully, or to the counter-charge that we are dragging our feet, that we are backmarkers and that, if only we could show a little more imagination, we could coax more rapid change out of the regime in Burma. It will be interesting to hear what she says this week in Parliament, but I hope that we are getting that balance right.
Q130 Sir Menzies Campbell: On a slightly different topic, it is the policy of Her Majesty’s Government not to publicise the names of individuals who are denied a visa for entry to the United Kingdom on the grounds that they are suspected of violations of human rights. Why is that policy adhered to? What would be the disadvantage to the United Kingdom’s interests were we to publish the names of people to whom visas were refused simply because of their human rights records?
Mr Browne: With your indulgence, Mr Chairman, I will come on to that, but I will give a slightly wider answer initially. The Government have made a significant change since I last appeared before the Committee, namely to introduce the explicit presumption that, where we have credible evidence, people who abused human rights would not normally be permitted to have visas to come into this country. The reason why I say that it is a significant change is that that is even if we have no reason to believe that they will do anything untoward in this country. That sends out a strong, values-based message to people who are responsible for undesirable behaviour that coming here is a privilege, not a right, and that our visa regime is not informed purely by security considerations within the United Kingdom; it is also informed by wider values.
I suspect that, were you to ask the relevant Home Office Minister, the concern would be that, if you get into justifying each individual case, you could make the case for justifying all kinds of new categories, and you could then make the case for legal appeals against the individual cases and we would end up with a hugely complicated system. For some people, for reasons of confidentiality or sensitivity, I think it would probably be regarded as reasonable not to release the details that underlie the decision. The position has been taken by successive Governments that it is better policy to have an overall policy that people understand, but not to comment on individual cases.
Q131 Sir Menzies Campbell: But if the policy is to some extent-indeed, I think it is to a substantial extent, as your earlier answer indicated-based on a values approach, would it not be a good advertisement for those values if it was pointed out that someone who may have been associated with the disgraceful treatment of a prisoner in detention had been refused a visa simply because they were known to have participated in something wholly contrary to all acceptable standards of human behaviour? Would that not be a very good advertisement for the United Kingdom?
Mr Browne: First, it is worth noting that the presumption now is that they would not be allowed to come in, whereas that presumption did not previously exist. I agree with the underlying point that it would send out a powerful message. All I am saying is that there may be other, less glorious considerations that need to be weighed against it, such as whether it would be prejudicial to a trial in that other country if the British Government had publicly stated that intention, and whether it would lead to greater retaliation from that country against British nationals being allowed to go there for what we would regard as reasons in the interest of the United Kingdom. One can think of other reasons, too. The current position of the Government is that they would not wish to make the reasons public in all cases. If they did, they would then have to justify why they were making some public and not others, which would lead to the position where the Government have the position that they have.
Q132 Sir Menzies Campbell: We might pursue that with the Home Office.
Q133 Chair: One last question on this area-sporting boycotts. As you know, we are engaged in a partial boycott of the European football championship that is on at the moment, but we chose not to boycott the Bahrain Grand Prix. Can you set out the criteria by which you reached those decisions? Do you think there is an inconsistency between the two positions?
Mr Browne: It is very difficult to have absolute consistency in these matters. I was quite struck when a lot of concern was expressed in the media about the Bahrain Grand Prix taking place, whereas the previous week’s Grand Prix had happened in Shanghai, which is emphatically in a country where serious human rights abuses take place and I did not read a single media comment saying that the Grand Prix should not have happened in China. That, in a way, answers my point, which is that I think it is very hard to apply these issues with absolute consistency. I observe that the media and the public do not regard these matters with consistency either. We try where we think it is appropriate to take the right course of action, but everybody is vulnerable in such circumstances to the charge that they could have done more or they should not have done anything.
Q134 Chair: You were utterly consistent between the Chinese Grand Prix and the Bahrain Grand Prix; you did not call for a boycott of either. Why are you boycotting the Ukrainian event?
Mr Browne: But a lot of critics of the Government were entirely inconsistent.
Q135 Chair: I just want the Government’s position, not the critics’ position or the commentators’ position. I want to know why you are boycotting one and not the other.
Mr Browne: All I am saying is that we are managing to be more consistent than anyone else I know, but I am sure we are open to the charge of inconsistency. I am not the Minister who covers Ukraine, and I have sadly never been there in my life, but I will try to explain the human rights perspective. There are concerns about human rights in the Ukraine, and it was felt-I have heard this view expressed by members of all political parties in the House of Commons-that it was important that the British Government demonstrated the concerns that exist here in Parliament about human rights in Ukraine. That was what was thought to be an appropriate signal of disapproval. I think that the British ambassador in Kiev has attended matches, and some people may feel that he should not have done. Other people may feel that Ministers are giving insufficient support to the England football team; I have heard that view expressed as well.
Q136 Mr Roy: We all hope that England go all the way to the Euro finals-
Mr Browne: Do you really?
Mr Roy: -it says here. From the outside, I see a total inconsistency. The Government refused to go to the game in Donetsk against France, the game against Sweden in Kiev, and the game tonight in Donetsk. They will refuse to go to the quarter finals, which will be either in Donetsk or Kiev, but on July 1, if England get there, they will change their mind. What was good enough at the start in relation to the group-saying "we have grave concerns about the way the opposition was treated in Ukraine and therefore we are boycotting"-will only be a wee boycott. In other words, if we get to the final, we will all queue up as the Chancellor did at the Champions League final.
Mr Browne: Let me say two things. One is that, sadly, by the time the final arrives I will be travelling in another part of the world, so I have no personal interest to impart. My other observation is that the only time that England have ever reached an international tournament final was when it was held in England, so these difficulties did not arise. I am delighted that you think they may do in two weeks’ time, but history suggests that we are dealing in hypotheticals here.
Q137 Mr Roy: The point is, Minister, the Government have said "There is a problem in the Ukraine and we are going to boycott." It seems to me that if you boycott the first couple of games, you have to be consistent and boycott all the way through including the final.
Mr Browne: A powerfully expressed point by Mr Roy.
Chair: Ann Clwyd wants to take you back to Burma.
Q138 Ann Clwyd: Aung San Suu Kyi, in her acceptance of the Nobel peace prize, urged caution in dealing with the Burmese regime. I think that everybody realises there are green shoots, but not to be over-optimistic. The Foreign Secretary told us during the Queen’s Speech debate that there were still "prisoners whom the Burmese Opposition argue are political prisoners. We are now at the stage of definitions of what constitutes a political prisoner." Have we got that definition yet?
Mr Browne: The short answer is that we are, inasmuch as we can through our embassy, trying to make assessments about the different statuses of different prisoners, and Amnesty International and others are very active in this field. Of course, you can get to a position where there is no definitive answer to that question, in some cases. One person’s political prisoner may be another person’s criminal, depending on how you view matters.
In terms of our overall approach-Aung San Suu Kyi can obviously speak for herself, but the general message that she has been keen to convey to our embassy and Government is that we should engage in this process, that we should regard the Burmese leadership as acting with a degree of good faith, and that we should not be a back marker. As I said, it is difficult, because we do not want to overreach ourselves. I think it is a source of great pride for people in all political parties in Parliament that Britain has been the outstanding country in the international arena in pushing the case for the restoration of democracy to Burma. That has been my experience on all occasions that it has come up, but we do not want to be so stuck on a narrative that when change takes place, we refuse to acknowledge it. It is difficult to have a right or wrong answer.
Q139 Ann Clwyd: Is the ICRC still denied access to detainees in Burmese prisons?
Vijay Rangarajan: No, they are not completely denied access now. They were denied access to all political prisoners for a substantial amount of time. Our assessment is that all the prominent political prisoners who featured on a sort of "A list" in Burma have now been released. The discussion is now-this is work that we are doing in Burma, including, particularly, with US colleagues who I have discussed this with, and obviously with the NLD and other opposition groups-on several hundred other prisoners who some people classify as political and other groups, who are often quite linked to them, do not. The ICRC access overall is still not as complete as we would like. I think they do have some access now.
Q140 Ann Clwyd: Some access-I do not understand. Can you tell us precisely what access they have?
Vijay Rangarajan: I do not have the detail on that, I am afraid.
Q141 Ann Clwyd: Could you let us know?
Vijay Rangarajan: Of course.
Q142 Chair: Turning to business interests, Minister, Sir John Stanley has dealt with those in some depth. May I just pick up on one point though? Human Rights Watch expressed concern to us that the UK jurisdiction on abuses overseas is somewhat limited, because of issues of jurisdiction-for example, child labour in a foreign country. Is there any consideration of having a look at that jurisdiction point, or is it an insuperable problem?
Mr Browne: There are difficulties that you alluded to in your question. We can have a look-or we do look. There is public concern, and often, consumers are very effective themselves at bringing about change that Governments may have more difficulty achieving, but there are difficulties that you alluded to.
Q143 Chair: Is there any way that British firms can be held accountable for their activities overseas? Is there any other dimension here?
Mr Browne: I am not an international lawyer, but my understanding is that there is quite a lot of concern about whether businesses can be prosecuted in one jurisdiction for offences, if you want to put it in those terms, that have happened within another jurisdiction. They could even be prosecuted in a third location: they could be headquartered in one place, commit the alleged offence in a second place and be prosecuted in a third place, but I am nervous about getting into a complex field of international law.
Vijay Rangarajan: We have recently intervened in an amicus curiae brief in the US Supreme Court on exactly this point, which may be the issue that Liberty has raised. It is the specific issue of extraterritoriality, where the US takes a more expansive view than we would like to. We would prefer to hold companies, particularly British ones, to account in this country or to see them held to account in the country where they are committing what under local law may be a human rights violation or an abuse of some kind. It is a matter for the criminal or civil law to hold that company accountable. Where we have difficulties-this is a much wider issue than the accountability of companies-is the extraterritorial application of domestic law in the US cases. The Alien Tort Statute is an old piece of legislation, which might be applied to everyone else’s companies, rather than just US ones.
Q144 Sir Menzies Campbell: But the position is that neither of the two legal systems in Britain are particularly moved with the notion of extraterritorial jurisdiction, except in very limited respects, such as murder. Of course it arises, does it not, in a very acute respect in relation to the controversy around extradition and whether American courts are entitled to take jurisdiction in relation to acts that are caused in the United Kingdom. The question that I wanted to ask was on whether that was under consideration in the general review of extradition that has taken place-or is that review confined only to the Home Office?
Vijay Rangarajan: At the moment I am not aware, although I think that it is confined entirely to the Home Office and extradition currently.
Q145 Sir John Stanley: Minister, is it not the case that Governments have tended to try to hide behind the supposed difficulties of extraterritorial legislation, when in fact there are a total of 29 pieces of UK legislation on the statute book-I have the list in front of me-under which British residents can be prosecuted in the UK for offences committed overseas?
Mr Browne: I am sorry. Is the question whether, given that that is the case, we are duplicitous or in some way misleading in stressing that we-
Chair: A lack of political will, I think is being referred to.
Mr Browne: The concerns have just been expanded upon in the previous set of questions and answers. Our presumption is that British businesses should be subject to British law or, when they act in other countries, subject to the law of the countries in which they act. You have some exceptions, which I would assume apply to businesses.
Sir John Stanley: Sorry.
Mr Browne: Some of your 29 pieces of legislation, I assume, apply to individual contact.
Sir John Stanley: No, absolutely not. There are offences under the Civil Aviation Act 1982, for example.
Chair: Minister, you are writing to us on a couple of other issues, so could I invite you to have a word with your lawyers in the Department? I accept that it is a difficult technical area, but if you could address some of the points that have been raised, that would be helpful.
Q146 Rory Stewart: Minister, how many embassies abroad have a UK-based officer working full time on human rights?
Mr Browne: I don’t know the answer to the question, but I have an answer that I hope will inform you and which I hope will satisfy the line of questioning. I think it was Ms Clwyd who raised with me a year ago the issue of how many dedicated human rights staff we have around the world, which is a slightly different question from how many embassies have human rights staff. I said that I thought it was impossible to give an answer, but we have tried to give an answer, which is 240 full-time equivalents.
Q147 Rory Stewart: It is quite a straightforward question. In an embassy organogram, do any of your embassies worldwide have a UK-based office working full time on human rights?
Mr Browne: With respect-
Q148 Rory Stewart: Is there anyone called a human rights officer? An American embassy has a human rights officer sitting in their embassy. Do you have any such people?
Mr Browne: There are a few in countries that are of particularly grave concern and where we have big embassies-China, for example. The reason that it is not quite so straightforward is that it slightly assumes that human rights are something that a person in the embassy does, whereas actually it is the objective of the embassy to project British Government policy, which in any given country may include a large component of human rights. If the ambassador never raised human rights because a junior employee was responsible for human rights, we would not regard that as a satisfactory model, even though I had an individual who I could display in front of the Committee.
Our 240 figure is full-time equivalents. We asked every employee what proportion of time they spent on human rights. If they said less than 10%, we excluded them. If they said more than 10%, we included them, and the 240 is the aggregate of all of those who spend more than 10% of their time on human rights. So if, for the sake of argument, they spend a third of their time on human rights, three of those equals one full-time equivalent. Even that is a rather imprecise measurement.
Rory Stewart: Minister-
Mr Browne: No, I was taken to task last time round for not giving detailed figures, so we have spent hours and hours working to try and help your Committee. Your assumption was that we were not doing this to your satisfaction and so we have spent hours and hours trying to demonstrate to you that we are. You might at least give me the courtesy of letting me explain it. What we cannot do, unless you want the added complication of a weighting system, is that under this measurement system, our ambassador to China counts the same as the most junior employee. Unless you can give me a mathematical formula whereby different grades are weighted at different levels-
Q149 Rory Stewart: With respect, that was not the question that I asked. The ambassador is responsible for many things: for political work, management work, the budget of the embassy and human rights. My question is straightforward. Can you please tell us how many officers you have worldwide who are UK-based in embassies who are working full-time on human rights?
Mr Browne: Solely devoted to human rights?
Rory Stewart: Solely devoted to human rights.
Mr Browne: No responsibility for any other issue, such as evacuating the building if a fire alarm goes off? Nothing? Seriously?
Q150 Rory Stewart: Minister, that is not a serious response. Your political officers and your economic officers are also responsible for evacuating the building. You could answer the question: how many human rights officers do you have?
Mr Browne: If you go to as many embassies as I do, you might see it. We have embassies with, say, a dozen British members of staff who are heavily working on the area of human rights. All of them are. The one who is responsible for business is concerned about business human rights. The one responsible for environmentalism is concerned about environmental human rights. If I was sitting in front of the Environment Committee, they would say that you cannot count that person as a dedicated environmental person because they also have a concern about human rights. You say that they are campaigning in Brazil about deforestation but they are also taking an interest in the effect that deforestation is having on indigenous people. The point I am making is that people across the board are delivering the Government’s human rights agenda. We have tried, with considerable effort, to give you a sense of the magnitude of this endeavour. Thinking that in a given week, an ambassador spends 95% of his time on human rights but it does not count strikes me as a bizarre measurement.
Q151 Rory Stewart: I am very happy to accept that a very large number of embassy staff are engaged in human rights and that human rights is, as Dr Rangarajan says, mainstream through the system. So human rights work, like political work and economic work and a whole series of other forms of activities in embassies, is mainstream through the system and a number of different staff are engaged in it. Could you please answer the question on how many people are designated as human rights officers who are UK-based staff in foreign embassies and have that as their primary responsibility and role within that embassy?
Mr Browne: I can’t, today. I do not know what the number is.
Q152 Rory Stewart: Could you please get a number for us?
Mr Browne: If we have a definitive number. My fear is that next time around, the conversation will revert to why there are embassies where we do not do any human rights, and I will end up having to try to explain again that just because we do not have a dedicated human rights officer it does not mean that we do not do human rights.
Q153 Chair: This, Minister, is because we take human rights very seriously here. We just want to know exactly what the focus of the Foreign Office is.
Mr Browne: But some embassies that I go to have only two UK staff-some of our smaller embassies.
Q154 Chair: In which case, the answer would be zero.
Mr Browne: The answer would be zero.
Chair: There is nothing wrong in saying that.
Mr Browne: Sure, but then I fear a whole series of letters and parliamentary questions about why we do not have anyone doing human rights in that country, and I will then have to try to explain, as I have tried to do for the past five or 10 minutes, that we do have people doing human rights in that country but they do not go around with a name badge on indicating their area of responsibility because they have multiple responsibilities. Apart from in our very big embassies-I cited Beijing as a case in point-the levels of responsibility are not so atomised.
You count only UK-based staff in your question. For example, I was in Beijing a few weeks ago and went to a human rights event to promote human rights in Beijing. One of the people who had organised it was a British national who was a locally engaged member of staff. She was a British person living in Beijing who had been employed by our embassy to help us work on, among other things, human rights. So, she would not count in your category, because she is not a UK-based member of staff, and yet I went, as the Minister, to a human rights event in Beijing that she had helped to organise. I could bring her to meet you.
Q155 Rory Stewart: Nevertheless, the transparency in measurement is very helpful-
Mr Browne: It would be misleading to release a figure that did not include her, because that would understate the amount of human rights work that we are doing in Beijing.
Q156 Rory Stewart: The more information we can have the better, so that we are able to hold you to account.
Mr Browne: But do you want the non-UK-based staff?
Q157 Rory Stewart: Certainly, the more context and the more statistics you can provide on the detail of Foreign Office staffing worldwide and the individual roles, helps us to assess how many resources-how many officials-you are dedicating in a particular place to a particular issue, and we would like that on political and economic work as well, so that we can see how you determine your priorities. I am sure that there will be many things that you need to explain in terms of putting those statistics in context, but the statistics are very useful for us.
Mr Browne: How would you categorise it to capture the woman I just mentioned?
Q158 Rory Stewart: I have asked my question; it is very straightforward. It is about UK-based staff.
Mr Browne: I don’t think it is very straightforward; that is the whole point, and that is why we have worked so exhaustively to try to give you a figure that can help here.
Q159 Chair: Minister, may I help here? Just to reflect on the concerns, an effort has been made to give us more information, and that is appreciated, but you can see that we are still trying to pin down greater detail, and perhaps you and your colleagues would like to-
Mr Browne: There is one other point that I would make briefly, which is that there are good reasons, which I am sure members of the Committee will appreciate, why we cannot categorise every single person and every hour they spend on every work task in every embassy. Do you want me to spell it out even more?
Q160 Chair: We are aware of that explanation.
Mr Browne: But Mr Stewart is very keen for us to provide an exhaustive list. He went on to say that not only is human rights not enough but that we should try and do it on commercial and environmental categories. Of course, by a process of elimination, if you do every single category, what is left is what you do not wish necessarily to reveal. So there are reasons why some of these decisions are made.
Q161 Chair: We are not asking for every single category.
Mr Browne: You are not, but if every Committee asked for every category we would be in that position, wouldn’t we?
Chair: Rory, have you finished your questions?
Q162 Rory Stewart: No. Whether or not the FCO has actually set a lower priority for children’s rights, would you accept that a number of organisations have the belief that you have done so, and if so, what are you doing to address that?
Mr Browne: I have never heard that accusation made.
Q163 Rory Stewart: Okay, there is UNICEF, Bond Child Rights Group, Save the Children UK. Bond Child Rights Group says that "despite the inclusion of the additional section relating to safeguarding children, the overall discussion of child rights in the 2011 Report is limited, comprising only four sub-sections. This shows that children’s rights are not a serious consideration or concern for the FCO, and certainly not a priority." It makes five different recommendations, ranging from support for child victims of armed conflicts through to the production of a new child rights strategy.
Mr Browne: We are concerned about human rights in the round. A lot of those would apply to children as much as to adults, even if it does not specify that they are to do with children. We are keen to be vigilant about human rights. If you feel that there are particularly strong examples of human rights abuses against any particular grouping, whether it is children or women or ethnic minorities-the group I went to see in Beijing was a lesbian, gay and bisexual group; I am sure you could find pressure groups who would say that we should be looking to do more in every single category-or if you think there are good reasons why we are falling short in one area, then we are open to suggestions.
Chair: Minister, I hope you can help me. I have the Commonwealth Secretary-General coming in nine minutes’ time, and we have just got one more set of questions from Bob Ainsworth.
Q164 Mr Ainsworth: Can you tell us what you have been discussing in the expert group on Freedom of Expression on the Internet?
Mr Browne: Sorry, this is a slightly long answer; I am conscious of your meetings, Chairman. This is an area where everybody is feeling their way a little bit-not just the Government; the public as a whole-about the power of the internet to bring about behavioural change. We are increasingly of the view that if you look at a given country in-I don’t know-the Middle East, for example, to avoid naming a particular country, a transition from a repressive Government to a more liberal, enlightened, participative society is as likely or more likely to be brought about by peoples sharing their ambitions through modern communications-in other words, a sort of grass-roots-up transition-than through conventional means, which is by treaties being signed and solemn declarations being made at the UN or with the United States or others.
The question for us is how we try to understand and, if we can, encourage this process. The problem is that everyone recognises freedom of expression on the internet if it is put before them, but it is quite hard to codify. For example, Germany, as I understand it, has a ban on the internet on holocaust denial, which many other broadly liberal countries would regard as an unreasonable restriction on freedom of speech. But I do not think that people really regard Germany as a country which does not fall into the category of liberal, enlightened countries, so it is difficult absolutely to codify what does and what does not constitute an appropriate level of policing of the internet.
It was on that basis that we organised a cyber-conference, which was held in the Queen Elizabeth centre about six months ago or so, to encourage further discussion in this area. I think the Hungarians and then the South Koreans have now undertaken to organise another cyber-conference this year and the following year. The sub-group inevitably talks in more conceptual terms than the other groups about how we can inform Government policy and thinking and feel our way through what is a comparatively new area for diplomacy. That is a sort of long, imprecise answer.
Q165 Mr Ainsworth: Is there any evidence that British companies are providing the wherewithal to block freedom of expression on the internet in other countries? As you know, this is a concern in many countries, such as China-the systematic denial of the ability of people to communicate. Is there any evidence that British companies are doing that, and is there anything that we can and should and are-
Mr Browne: Did you say British companies or the British Government?
Q166 Mr Ainsworth: British companies. There are technical necessities in order to do this. Some of these countries are well aware of providing them themselves, but others are availing themselves of outside expertise.
Mr Browne: That is a very good point and isn’t one that we have discussed in our sub-group. The reality is that it may be difficult to put in place a framework which would prevent companies from doing that and it may be that companies from other countries would step into the void in any case. However, I understand completely the point that you’re driving at. I am conscious that Governments are not necessarily at the cutting edge of the developments in these areas, but what we as a Government have tried to do is take the entire conversation at governmental level towards more freedom on the internet, fewer restrictions and more citizens’ rights, if you like. So if British businesses were trying to restrict that in oppressive countries, then that would go against the grain of British Government policy. In practical terms I’m definitely happy to look at it, but I would not want to commit to what we would be definitely able to do to bring about a satisfactory change.
Chair: Minister, thank you very much for your time. A lot of ground has been covered and we appreciate you making yourself available. Thank you to your two colleagues as well and we look forward to hearing from you on the points that we’ve raised. It is necessary to adjourn the Committee for five minutes so I would be grateful if members of the public could leave the room and wait outside. Then you can come back in five minutes’ time.