Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg

Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg
Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg © Gernot Keller, 2007
Blinkered Justice articles also appear on CrimeTalk and Government In The Lab

Friday, 27 January 2012

Foreign Affairs Committee & The Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Human Rights Work 2010-2011

Palace of Westminster at night (c) David Iliff

A cumbersome title, but by no means a cumbersome subject. I attended this debate yesterday to ascertain how the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) are promoting human rights across the world, and to see what concerns the Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) have with their work.

What follows below will more or less be a straight report of the proceedings, littered, here and there, with my initial thoughts and observations. I will provide a more thorough analysis of this debate, and the FAC's report on the FCO's human rights work and the FCO's response to it, in due course.

To understand this debate, one needs to know that the term 'debate' does not adequately express what took place. There was no to-ing and fro-ing between the FAC and FCO; it was basically one long FAC question session, answered by an FCO minister, Alistair Burt, at the end.

The various cross-parliamentary FAC members raised their concerns, one by one, which Alistair Burt then answered in part via a written FCO statement, before replying orally to some of the concerns raised in the final few minutes. For those concerns that he could not answer, he will seek a written response from the Foreign Secretary.

Although allegedly annual, this was the first debate to take place on the FCO's human rights work in over 3 years. Some FAC members lamented the setting, and posited that it should have taken place in the House of Commons. Moreover, each of the FAC members expressed their displeasure that they had been allotted a total of 90 minutes only to debate this issue, in contrast to previous debates that had lasted 180 minutes.

Human rights records in Bahrain, Libya, Burma, Iran, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Syria, Israel, Pakistan, Colombia and Sri Lanka were all discussed in relation to the UK's diplomatic relationship with them. Oddly, nobody debated the UK's relationship with the USA (Guantanamo, state-sponsored drone assassinations, the death penalty etc.)

Rather than go through each of the members concerns, I will set out the main concerns below.


  • Why did the UK government sell arms to a number of regimes that, although were not using them against their own people at the time of sale, later went on to do so?
  • How did the UK government fail to consider the impact of these sales, and the potential human rights abuses, given the autocratic regimes (e.g. Bahrain) that they were selling to?
  • How could the UK government sanction an international arms fair at which (banned) cluster bombs were being exhibited?

Stop cluster bombs march (c) pxkls

  • How does the UK use its burgeoning commercial relationship to engage China on human rights issues?
  • How does the Foreign Secretary “see trade and promotion of human rights as mutually reinforcing?” (quote taken from letter said to have been sent from Foreign Secretary to FAC Chair 25/01/2012)
  • How did the FCO omit Bahrain from their list of states that they had concerns over?

European Court of Human Rights (ECHR)

  • Although in need of modernisation, why is the UK's rhetoric on the ECHR so openly dismissive?
  • Given this, how will the UK be able to do more than not downplay human rights issues in its discussions with other nations?

Other FAC members called for the FCO to press Russia on Khodorkovsky and Magnitsky, China on its arrests of pro-democracy demonstrators, and Sri Lanka to hold an independent tribunal looking at war crimes committed during the civil war.

Amongst other points, Alistair Burt's response pointed to the help that the FCO had provided in reforming China's criminal justice system, the flexible approach the FCO had taken to revoking arms licenses during the Arab spring, and the human rights projects that the FCO continued to fund across the globe. The FCO has also recently produced these guidelines for overseas security and justice assistance.

Before I offer a short critique on this debate, it is important to note that many other citizens are not afforded the opportunity to see how their government works. In this respect, we are lucky to live in the UK. Equally, the role of the FAC, and other committees, institutions and organisations, inside and outside, of parliament, demonstrate the democratic freedoms that we have.

However, these things on their own do not mean that all is well. The time afforded this debate and the lack of one in the preceding 3 years illustrate a lack of concern for international human rights.

Alistair Burt (c) Sam Friedrich
Business-like in his performance, Alistair Burt offered little detail in his responses to the concerns that the FAC raised. It may be that the FCO has done sterling human rights work on the Chinese criminal justice system, but that does not address why it imprisons its political critics.

Whilst arms licences may have been revoked during the Arab spring, no explanation was offered as to why we armed dubious regimes prior to these demonstrations. The likes of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are not recognised as bastions of human rights. Just who would we not sell arms to?

My over-riding impression, which may admittedly be tainted by my own experiences of the FCO, was that this was a tick-box exercise. The FCO provided generalised responses to show that it cares (to some degree) about international human rights issues, without addressing core concerns or the inherent contradictions and dichotomies of its actions.

If the FCO are to promote an UK vision of what constitutes human rights today, it needs to take a long hard look at what it, and other government departments (e.g. UKTI) do, and change. We can not possibly expect other nations to take us seriously on human rights, when we are only too willing to eschew them in return for financial gain.

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