Select Committee on Foreign Affairs First Report



The Foreign Affairs Committee has agreed to the following Report:


1. On 31 July 1997 the Foreign Affairs Committee decided to hold an inquiry with the following terms of reference:

    "To examine how the Government implements its human rights objectives when formulating and executing foreign policy, both bilaterally and multilaterally, and to assess the extent to which such policy can be effective in preventing or remedying human rights abuses."

2. The subject was chosen because the new Government had stated that it proposed to enhance the emphasis on human rights in foreign policy formulation and implementation. Indeed, the 1997 Gracious Speech included the statement:

3. On 12 May 1997, the incoming Government produced a statement on foreign affairs intended to form the foundation of the foreign policy to be pursued over the lifetime of the Parliament. This was called the Mission Statement. It set out four main benefits to be achieved through the Government's foreign policy: security, prosperity, quality of life and mutual respect. This last benefit was defined as spreading "the values of human rights, civil liberties and democracy which we demand for ourselves." These benefits were to be obtained over the life of this Parliament by pursuing a number of strategic foreign policy aims, which included the active promotion of arms control and the use of the United Kingdom's status at the United Nations to secure more effective international action towards global peace. The Foreign Secretary, the Rt Hon Robin Cook MP, also set out a number of immediate foreign policy priorities to be addressed over the coming twelve months. None of these priorities contained an explicit commitment to human rights objectives, although they concentrated on building dialogue and good relationships with "key and emerging partners".

4. The ethical dimension of the Government's foreign policy was elaborated in subsequent speeches and policy statements. On 21 May 1997 the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for Defence announced that the United Kingdom would "ban the import, export, transfer and manufacture of all forms of anti-personnel landmines."[2] On 9 June the Minister of State with responsibilities for human rights issues, Mr Tony Lloyd MP, set out the Government's commitment to an ethical dimension to its policy on the arms trade,[3] and on 3 July he announced a review of the United Kingdom's policy towards the major international human rights instruments.[4] On 17 July the Foreign Secretary made a major policy speech, entitled "Human Rights into a New Century", in which he elaborated further on the policies which were to be implemented as part of the "ethical dimension", and listed twelve specific policies designed to meet the Government's objectives in this regard.[5] On 23 July Mr Lloyd stated that it was the Government's policy to help to tackle the problems caused by illicit arms transfers, and that it would be supporting an EU programme to prevent and combat the illicit trafficking in conventional arms agreed in June 1997 with a view to taking it further forward during the United Kingdom's Presidency of the EU in the first half of 1998.[6] On 28 July the Foreign Secretary announced to the House the new criteria which would apply to all applications for licences to export arms.[7] He also announced a ban on the export of certain electro-shock equipment and other devices designed for use in torture, and stated that it was the Government's policy "to prevent British companies from manufacturing, selling or procuring equipment designed primarily for torture" and to press for a global ban on such equipment.[8]

5. This new emphasis on ethics in foreign policy was met with some scepticism. Some commentators observed that for the Government to pursue a foreign policy which openly acknowledged an ethical dimension was either undesirable—as foreign policy would always be driven by a narrowly-defined concept of the national interest—or impossible to achieve in practical and consistent terms.[9] It was also argued that the new emphasis was a misleading one: the previous Administration had maintained an ethical dimension in its foreign policy, but had not trumpeted its virtue in doing so.[10] So we decided in the first session of this Parliament to assess how the new Government was implementing its human rights objectives in its foreign policy, and to see what changes had been made in London and in overseas Posts as a result.

6. It is of course unrealistic to seek at present to provide a definitive assessment of the extent to which the Government's foreign policy is effective in preventing or remedying human rights abuses overseas. Given the deep-seated causes of many of these, a far longer timescale than the eighteen months the present Government has been in power will be necessary. It will therefore be possible to consider individual themes and countries in the light of the policy. In this report we concentrate more on the structures and mechanisms the Government has put in place and seek to assess their likely success in delivering the Government's stated aims.

7. The Committee took oral evidence from the Foreign Secretary, from Mr Lloyd and from the head of the Human Rights Policy Department of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. We were very pleased to welcome two of the Foreign Secretary's distinguished predecessors, Lord Callaghan of Cardiff and Lord Hurd of Westwell. Oral evidence was also taken from experienced political commentators and from academic experts in the political and legal aspects of human rights theory. The Committee heard from representatives of a number of leading non-governmental organisations (NGOs) with general and specific interests in the field of human rights, from representatives of the trade union movement and from senior executives from several leading multinational corporations.[11] The Committee also received numerous memoranda from a range of interested organisations in the human rights field. We are most grateful to all those who appeared before us or supplied written evidence.

8. The Committee recognises that the inquiry has ranged across issues which, while falling within an area of policy for which the Foreign Secretary has lead responsibility, are nevertheless the principal concern of other Secretaries of State. We have not taken written or oral evidence from any other Department in the course of this inquiry. We recognise that the Secretary of State for International Development in particular has responsibility for the implementation of a significant proportion of the Government's overall policy on human rights issues. On our country visits, however, we met a number of officials from the Department for International Development who worked in close collaboration with their Foreign Office colleagues in the delivery of Government policy. We also note the responsibilities of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry in the area of strategic arms export licensing.

9. We made a number of overseas visits in pursuit of the objectives of this inquiry. In March 1998 we visited the United Kingdom representations to the United Nations and other international organisations in New York: in addition to witnessing the operation of the Post, we had most productive meetings with, among others, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, and the Permanent Representatives of Malaysia and of the Federal Republic of Nigeria to the United Nations. We also visited Washington, where we met officials of the Bureau of Human Rights, Democracy and Labor in the United States Department of State, leading members of the Senate and the House of Representatives, and senior representatives of a number of leading US-based non-governmental organisations.

10. In May 1998 we paid a brief visit to Geneva, where we saw the work of the United Kingdom Permanent Representation to the United Nations and had valuable discussions with Mrs Mary Robinson, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mr Michel Hansenne, Director-General of the International Labour Office, and representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

11. In June 1998 the Committee divided into three groups in order to visit East Africa, the Middle East and South-East Asia respectively. During their week-long visits the three groups between them visited Kenya, Uganda, Thailand, the Philippines, Kuwait, Qatar, Israel and the Occupied Territories. We are most grateful to all whom we met for the generosity they showed in the time which they spent with us, and the expertise which they were willing to share with us. We are grateful to all the relevant Heads of Mission and their staff for the hospitality they showed us and the arrangements they made on our behalf. A list of our principal interlocutors in the course of all our visits is given at Annex I.

12. We should note that our intention to visit Myanmar, Nigeria and Indonesia was frustrated by the refusal of the government of Myanmar to nominate any time or date when a visit by the Committee would be convenient, by the failure of the then Nigerian government to reply officially to our request for visas, and by the advice given to the Committee that conditions in Indonesia at that time would not allow for a satisfactory visit.

13. We have been assisted in the latter stages of this inquiry by Mr Howard Gilbert of the Law Department and the Human Rights Centre of the University of Essex. We are most grateful to him for his help.

1  HC Deb, 14 May 1997, vol. 294, col. 44. Back
2  HC Deb, 21 May 1997, col. 72w. Back
3  Speech to the British­American Security Information Council, Chatham House, London, 9 June 1997. Back
4  HC Deb, 3 July 1997, col. 221w. Back
5  "Human Rights Into A New Century", speech delivered in the Locarno Suite, FCO, London, 17 July 1997. Back
6  HC Deb, 23 July 1998, col. 603w. Back
7  HC Deb, 28 July 1998, cols. 26-29w. Back
8  HC Deb, 28 July 1998, cols. 65-66w. Back
9  QQ 4-6. Back
10  Q 76. Back
11  A list of those who gave oral evidence may be found at pages cxviii-cxix. Back

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Prepared 21 December 1998