With a global backlash against the international human rights system gathering pace, the UK faces challenges, and opportunities, in pursuing its human rights agenda overseas. There are also conflicting priorities between human rights and other policy areas, notably trade, says a new Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee.
Global Britain: Human rights and the rule of law, considers the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s human rights work.
Challenges and opportunities for UK's traditional approach
Attacks against the international legal human rights system from a sceptical Russia and China; the diminishing power of the Security Council’s permanent five; and changing US priorities – all combine to represent real challenges and opportunities for the UK’s traditional approach to promoting human rights abroad.
In this changing climate, indications of a diminished UK influence within the UN human rights system are worrying, including the apparent decline in UK representation on human rights treaty bodies. While the Committee appreciates that the Government is responding to recent UN election defeats (such as the International Court of Justice) by focusing on a smaller number of international election campaigns, stepping back from the human rights system is not the answer. The FCO should do more to support UK nationals to gain key positions at the UN.
Prioritising human rights is in UK's long-term commercial
‘Global Britain’ will inevitably face conflicts between its human rights agenda and other priorities such as trade. Moreover, there is already a widespread perception that the FCO is prioritising trade objectives above human rights. However, prioritising human rights is in the UK's long-term commercial, as well as moral, interest. The Government should commit to including human rights clauses within future trade agreements.
The Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Tom Tugendhat MP, commented:
"The UK cannot afford to be complacent. Unexpected defeats in recent UN votes and elections require the Government to be more focussed on seeking support from countries which share our values and winning over those in the middle ground. The UN human rights system is facing a backlash from those who seek to undermine it; the Government must step forward with a clear strategy and measurable goals for strengthening the system and maintaining UK influence.
"As the UK seeks new trade agreements, it will be faced with questions over how to balance rights with trade and security. There is little clarity on how the Government plans to handle these questions.
"Parliament and the public require reassurances about how the UK will engage with countries that commit grave violations of human rights. Engagement with countries such as Burma risks sending the wrong signals. Making human rights a priority is in all of our interests."