Select Committee on Foreign Affairs First Report


The Foreign Affairs Committee has agreed to the following Report:—



1. The Human Rights Annual Report 2000,[7] published in July 2000, is the third such report by the Government. The first was published in April 1998,[8] the second in July 1999.[9] We have made it our practice following the publication of these reports to take oral evidence from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), and to report to the House. Our previous Reports were published on 10 December 1998[10] and 3 February 2000.[11]

2. We took oral evidence from Mr Peter Hain MP, Minister of State at the FCO, on 19 December 2000. We have also received written evidence from the Council for Arab-British Understanding, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, the Free Tibet Campaign and Amnesty International UK. This appears on pages 1 to 28.

3. Human rights has been a central theme of our work in this Parliament. One of the first decisions of the Committee after its establishment in July 1997 was to review the policy and practice of the FCO in this field. This culminated in our First Report of Session 1998-99, Foreign Policy and Human Rights.[12] We have drawn on that work in particular inquiries since. In that Report we welcomed the production of an annual human rights report and drew attention inter alia to the continuation of grave and widespread human rights abuses in China.[13] It followed therefore that human rights issues were very prominent in our recent Report on China.[14]

4. This Report does not look at human rights in specific countries in any detail. We concentrate instead on the 2000 Annual Report itself and what it reveals about human rights policy both in the FCO and throughout Government.

Form of the 2000 Annual Report

5. This year's annual report is an improvement on the two previous reports, in terms of both content and presentation. The theme-based structure of the report provides a view of the Government's human rights concerns and actions on a global scale. It is, however, more difficult to ascertain information about specific countries from the report: for example, it is not easy to discern what the FCO's priorities and actions are in any one country; what progress has been made over the year in a particular country; or how Government spending on human rights has been shared out between different countries.

6. In its own words, the 2000 Annual Report is intended "to provide those outside the Government with a tool with which to hold the Government to account for its commitments."[15] Giving a higher profile to the issue of human rights and setting out the Government's record in the field are other, implicit, goals of producing such an annual report. But the key aim is accountability. The recommendations we make below would help future annual reports to meet this latter objective more fully.


7. We have twice recommended,[16] and the Government has twice rejected,[17] the proposal that human rights annual reports should be constructed on a country-by-country basis to make it easier to compare year with year and country with country. The 2000 Annual Report, like previous human rights annual reports, is structured around global human rights concerns, with chapters on issues such as conflict, justice and democracy. We appreciate that this thematic approach to the annual report both allows the Government some flexibility in the information that it includes and provides a useful overview of Government activities and policy. It is not, however, a format readily open to rigorous scrutiny. We again recommend the inclusion of information on a country-by-country basis in future annual reports on human rights.

8. We agree with the 2000 Annual Report that it should not be "intended to provide an exhaustive analysis of the human rights situation in every country in the world,"[18] and this is not what we are suggesting. Such reports are already produced by the US State Department[19] and non-governmental organisations such as Amnesty International[20] and Human Rights Watch.[21] We would, however, like to see future annual reports coming closer to providing "an exhaustive description of all the Government's activities to promote human rights abroad."[22] We recommend that information be provided on every country where there are significant grounds for concern about human rights and that this information should include:

  • a brief assessment of the country's human rights record, including details of the country's record of ratification of core human rights instruments and, where relevant, details of UK Government action to encourage ratification;

  • details of UK Government action designed to improve the country's human rights record, including action taken in conjunction with EU, Commonwealth or other partners;

  • a list of the human rights-related projects supported by the UK Government, with the cost of each; and

  • an outline of further proposed activities and actions.

9. This information should be readily available to the Government. Mr Hain confirmed to us in oral evidence[23] that, in response to a recommendation from our last Report,[24] all heads of mission now include a section covering human rights in their annual reviews to London. These reviews could provide a basis for country-by-country reports. Such reports would be of use not only to the House, but also to a range of individuals and organisations, not least NGOs, which often have a focus on specific countries and would benefit from a clear statement of the Government's activities and policies in their areas of interest. The inclusion of this information would also help the Government to pre-empt criticism that an annual report had failed to discuss a specific country in sufficient detail.[25] We can see the advantages of providing a thematic appraisal of human rights, but we would also like to see information on a country-by-country basis provided alongside such an appraisal.


10. In our December 1998 Report we suggested the publication of three annexes alongside the 1998 Annual Report: the first setting out the increase in ratifications of core international human rights instruments over the year; the second detailing disbursements approved from the Human Rights Project Fund (HRPF); and the third setting out the details and statistics on the training programmes for FCO officials. We welcome the publication of the first and third of these as Annexes 5 and 3 to the 2000 Annual Report.

11. Annex 2 of this year's annual report deals with funding. It is not always easy to measure the full extent of human rights funding. Sponsored visits and scholarships for overseas students, for example, sometimes involve a human rights element, which it would not be reasonable to expect the Government to disaggregate. The annex nonetheless identifies four key sources of expenditure on human rights:

  • Assistance to Support Stability with In Service Training (ASSIST),

  • the Conflict Prevention Fund, and

  • the Commonwealth Human Rights Fund.

Useful outline detail about these sources of human rights funding is provided, but information on expenditure is not broken down either on a country-by-country or a topical basis.

12. In our last Report we regretted "the failure to include a breakdown of expenditure of the HRPF in the 1999 Annual Report because this would demonstrate which countries the Government views as a priority and which projects it views as a priority within any given country."[26] A key indicator of the Government's commitment to human rights worldwide is the money that it spends, what projects it spends it on, and where it spends it. We recommend that future editions of the annual report should include as an annex a breakdown of FCO expenditure through key human rights funds over the previous financial year.

13. Human rights annual reports are already made available on the Internet as electronic documents. We trust that this practice will continue. However, the information which we are requesting on FCO human rights expenditure will be difficult to analyse unless relevant detail can easily be picked out. The FCO currently provides a database of HRPF projects,[27] which could usefully be expanded to include the other funds mentioned above. Accordingly, we recommend that information on human rights expenditure provided in future annual reports should also be made available on the Internet through a searchable database.


14. We are glad to see that, as a result of the Government's acceptance of one of our previous recommendations, this year's annual report on human rights has a full index. One teething problem worth noting is that there are a number of omissions from the index, which give the impression that the report is less comprehensive than it in fact is. Morocco, for example, is covered in some detail in the report, but has been left out of the index altogether.

Transparency of Government policy

15. The Government has adopted a pragmatic approach to human rights policy, aiming to produce maximum results on the ground rather than to adhere strictly for the sake of principle to policies that do not work. As the 2000 Annual Report states, "since circumstances differ throughout the world, it would be irresponsible of any government to apply the same 'one-size-fits-all' approach to every country where we have human rights concerns."[28] This is a sensible approach, which in general we applaud, but it causes two problems. First, for the Government to show that individual policy decisions are best suited to achieving its human rights goals is more difficult than to demonstrate adherence to a rigid set of human rights principles. Second, it is more difficult for those scrutinising Government to judge both whether these individual policy decisions are based on human rights criteria and whether they will be effective.

16. If policy cannot be justified on the basis of overriding principles, the Government may appear inconsistent in its approach to countries with human rights problems, even where it rightly believes that its policies are justified in terms of their results. If the Government endorses military action in respect of Kosovo, but not in respect of Chechnya, it cannot be surprising if the media represent as a lack of principle what the Government portrays as the most effective response in the circumstances. In his evidence to us, Mr Hain expressed his annoyance at what he described as the media's "obsessive" and "distorted" slant on the Government's human rights policy.[29] While we endorse an approach to human rights based on "making a difference,"[30] we acknowledge—as the Government should, and sometimes does[31]—that criticism of such a policy is inevitable, and potentially useful, where that policy appears to be applied inconsistently or subordinated to other policy interests.

17. Another problem, of direct concern to us as the select committee charged with scrutinising the FCO, is that a case-by-case approach to human rights policy could allow the Government to disguise inconsistency as necessary realism. We cannot be expected to take it on trust that, for example, the Government's decision to pursue a policy of "frank but discreet exchanges"[32] with the Saudi authorities is pursued entirely in order "to help those who most need our help."[33] Suspicions are bound to be aroused that the rationale for discretion in this case may be prompted by issues other than human rights, such as trade or security. It is certainly hard to judge from outside Government whether "frank but discreet exchanges" are indeed the most effective way to pursue human rights issues with Saudi Arabia.


18. In our last Report on human rights, we asked the Government to "make explicit the criteria on which it bases decisions to pursue a policy of constructive engagement in preference to a more robustly critical approach to a country's human rights record or indeed a policy of constructive disengagement."[34] In its response, the Government undertook "to explain the policymaking process in future annual reports," but noted that it was "not possible to identify a set of mechanistic criteria that can be applied automatically in all situations."[35] This misunderstands what we have been seeking. We are not asking for universally applicable criteria, but for explanations of why the Government adopts a particular chosen policy in response to a particular situation. Such explanations would help to make the Government's human rights policy more transparent. Accordingly, we recommend that in next year's annual report the Government take particular care to explain how its policies and actions in particular countries address the human rights shortfalls which it has identified, and the reasons for the strategy of engagement which has been adopted in each case.


19. In past human rights annual reports, the Government has referred to a policy of "constructive engagement."[36] This term has for the most part been replaced in the 2000 Annual Report by the term "critical engagement."[37] It has not been made clear if the change in terminology also represents a change in policy. We recommend that the Government explain in its response to this Report how critical engagement differs from constructive engagement and the reasons for any policy developments involved.

20. In his oral evidence to us, Mr Hain explained that the Government did not "seek confrontation ... As for isolation, again, it is not a preferred outcome." The Government "would prefer a stance of critical engagement."[38] Such an approach is generally prudent and laudable, but it cannot be open-ended, or it would invite negotiation without commitment, on the assumption that so long as communication channels were kept open, the British Government would take no effective action in response to human rights abuses.

21. In order for critical engagement to be effective, it is vital that the Government should be prepared not only to voice its criticisms where these are justified, but also to explain when punitive action would become necessary and what form this action would take. We do not believe that such action, or the threat of it, would necessarily imply a policy of isolation, as Mr Hain suggested to us.[39]

22. In May 1995 the EU Council of Ministers approved a suspension mechanism to be included in Community agreements with non-member countries, "to enable the Community to react immediately in the event of violation of essential aspects of those agreements, particularly human rights."[40] In our last Report we noted our concern that human rights obligations under Partnership and Co-operation Agreements (PCAs), concluded between the EU and countries of the former Soviet Union, were not always being treated very seriously.[41] Following up its response[42] to our Report on South Caucasus and Central Asia,[43] the Government has defended PCAs by stating that they ensure that human rights are raised at the highest levels.[44] The argument that the EU improves its negotiating position on human rights by signing PCAs can only hold water if pressure is effectively applied through these agreements on states in breach of their human rights obligations. We are not convinced that this pressure is being effectively applied. Despite continuing human rights abuses in a number of signatory states, there appears to have been no suggestion that the relevant PCAs should be suspended. Accordingly, we repeat a recommendation from our last Report: "PCAs should have teeth and, when appropriate, the teeth should bite. States which consistently fail to meet their obligations should have their PCAs suspended."[45]

23. The same argument is equally applicable to other trade agreements between the EU and non-member countries. We understand fully why the Government wishes to avoid taking unnecessarily confrontational steps. On the other hand, we are concerned by the Government's apparent unwillingness even to contemplate action under trade agreements such as the Euro-Med agreements where serious breaches of human rights have been committed in several countries including Algeria, the Palestinian Authority, Tunisia and Israel. We recommend that the Government should describe in more detail the circumstances which would lead it to press for the suspension of a trade agreement with a country in breach of its human rights obligations.

Joined-up Government


24. Previous annual reports have been signed by both the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for International Development. The 2000 Annual Report is signed by the Foreign Secretary alone and produced solely by the FCO. The Department of International Development published its own paper, Realising Human Rights for Poor People, in October 2000. We have the assurance of Mr Hain that nothing of significance is to be read into this change.[46] Nonetheless, it brings home the fact that different Government Departments are bound to have different human rights priorities.

25. Chapter 2 of the 2000 Annual Report is entitled "Joined-Up Government" and describes in some detail the roles of Government Departments other than the FCO in integrating human rights into foreign policy. However, it makes no mention of any differences between Departments, nor of how these might have been resolved. Working together with our colleagues on the Defence, International Development and Trade and Industry Committees, we have tried to ensure that the four relevant Government Departments have a joined-up policy on the issue of arms export licences. Differences between Departments emerged in particular in relation to the licensing of Hawk spares for Zimbabwe, which the four Committees described as "muddle and confusion arising from ... conflicting objectives."[47] While we commend the FCO for its initiatives in promoting human rights across Government, progress in joined-up Government clearly still remains to be made.


26. The Second Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child dealing with the involvement of children in armed conflict requires states to take all feasible measures to ensure that under-18s do not take a direct part in military action. Because of the British armed forces' policy of recruiting 16-year-olds for deployment at 17, the United Kingdom has not yet been able to ratify the protocol. We were told in oral evidence that "the MOD are currently looking at how their procedures can be adapted so that ... we will be in a position to ratify".[48] Amnesty International UK has expressed concern that a declaration made by the United Kingdom on signature of the protocol "indicates an unwillingness by the UK Government to change its policy on deployment, and undermines their support for the optional protocol."[49] We hope that the United Kingdom will be in a position to ratify the protocol as soon as possible.


27. In August 2000 the Government announced a joint Home Office/FCO action plan to tackle the overseas dimension of forced marriages. Posts overseas were tasked under the action plan to re-examine their procedures for giving assistance abroad. We are delighted by the high priority that both Government Departments have given to tackling the problem of forced marriages together and look forward to the report promised to us in oral evidence.[50] We recommend that the issue of forced marriages continues to feature in future annual reports on human rights.


28. In our last Report, we welcomed the inclusion of human rights in the citizenship element of the national curriculum.[51] Amnesty International UK has also drawn attention to "misunderstandings" which "highlight the need to enhance public knowledge of human rights and the principal international instruments that establish and enforce them."[52] The Government has undertaken to include in next year's annual report a description of how citizenship education is promoting human rights awareness amongst UK pupils.[53] We welcome this undertaking and look forward to hearing what progress has been made. We recommend that citizenship education continue to feature in future annual reports on human rights.

Global issues


29. We have already noted the announcement in the Queen's Speech of the forthcoming International Criminal Court Bill,[54] which was introduced in the House of Lords on 14th December 2000. The Bill was given a second reading on 15 January 2001 and will now proceed through its normal Lords stages. It is unlikely to arrive in the Commons much before the end of February. Further progress in both Houses will be dependent on co-operation between the usual channels, and the wholehearted support of the Government. We strongly recommend that the Government finds time to ensure that the International Criminal Court Bill becomes law before the end of the current Session.

30. Amnesty International UK has identified what it considers to be a number of shortcomings in the draft International Criminal Court Bill published in August 2000. They draw attention to:

  • "the failure to provide UK courts with jurisdiction over genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes no matter where they are committed, no matter who is responsible

  • a failure to clearly state that there shall be no immunity attaching to heads of state or other politicians or officials with respect to ICC crimes

  • leaving decisions on whether to institute UK prosecution proceedings to the Attorney-General—a politician—rather than the Director of Public Prosecutions."[55]

We note that the Government's view on the first two of these matters was set out by the Attorney General and by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the FCO in their speeches in the House of Lords at second reading of the Bill.


31. We commend the Government on the representations that it has made against the death penalty in the USA and elsewhere.[56] We have particular concerns about the use of the death penalty at federal level and in a number of states of the USA, notably the continued execution of minors. Amnesty International states that 98 executions were carried out in the USA in 1999. Figures available for other countries are, according to Amnesty International, likely to understate the true total, but it estimates that in 1999 China executed more prisoners than all other countries combined (at least 1,077), followed by Iran (at least 165), Saudi Arabia (at least 103) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (up to 100). Amnesty also refers to hundreds of executions, many extrajudicial, in Iraq.[57]

32. There are many US states in which the death penalty either does not exist or is not used. We also appreciate that the USA is not the most common user of the death penalty. It is, however, the only western democracy to carry out executions on any substantial scale. We believe that the death penalty is particularly out of place in a modern democracy. We recommend that the Government continue to make its opposition to the death penalty known to the US authorities, especially in the early months of the new administration.


33. We are glad to see the detail in the 2000 Annual Report on efforts by the Government to combat the evil of bonded labour in India and Nepal. There was no mention, however, of Pakistan, nor of Bangladesh. We welcome Mr Hain's undertaking to us in oral evidence to include regional coverage of this problem in future annual reports.[58] We recommend that next year's annual report contain a section devoted to slavery and bonded labour across the Indian sub-continent as a whole. We further recommend that the Government informs the Committee in its response to this Report as to the outcomes for which it will be pressing from the International Labour Organisation conference on bonded labour to be held in June 2001.

Undertaking not yet fulfilled: green paper on mercenaries

34. The Government announced in April 1999 in its response[59] to our Report on Sierra Leone[60] that it would be preparing a green paper on mercenaries. It was to be published by November 2000, a deadline which the Government still intended to keep as late as October of that year.[61] The Government subsequently admitted in response to a written parliamentary Question[62] that this deadline might be missed, but it has not been able to say when the paper will in fact be published.[63] We regret the Government's failure to publish the green paper on mercenaries on time, and recommend that it states in its response to this Report when this important document will be published.

7   Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Annual Report on Human Rights 2000, Cm. 4774 (hereafter 2000 Annual Report), available at Back

8   Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Department for International Development, Annual Report on Human Rights 1998, available at Back

9   Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Department for International Development, Annual Report on Human Rights 1999, Cm. 4404, available at Back

10   First Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, Session 1998-99, Foreign Policy and Human Rights, HC 100 (1998-99). This and other Reports from the Committee are available at Back

11   First Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, Session 1999-2000, Annual Report on Human Rights 1999, HC 41 (1999-2000). Back

12   HC 100 (1998-99). Back

13   HC 100 (1998-99), para 98. Back

14   Tenth Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, Session 1999-2000, China, HC 574 (1999-2000). Back

15   2000 Annual Report, p. 2. Back

16   HC 100 (1998-99), paras 172-3; HC 41 (1999-2000) para 6. Back

17   Cm. 4229, para 68; Cm. 4687, para 4. Back

18   2000 Annual Report, p. 2. Back

19   Available at Back

20   Available at Back

21   2001 World Report available at Back

22   Ibid. Back

23   Q120. Back

24   HC 41 (1999-2000), para 18. Back

25   QQ32-3 and 116-7; Appendix 1, p. 17. Back

26   HC 41 (1999-2000), para 8. Back

27 Back

28   2000 Annual Report, p. 14. Back

29   QQ3 and 7. Back

30   2000 Annual Report, p. 9. Back

31   Q75. Back

32   Annual Report 2000, p. 120. Back

33   Annual Report 2000, p. 9. Back

34   HC 41 (1999-2000), para 17. Back

35   Cm. 4687, para 13. Back

36   Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Department for International Development, Annual Report on Human Rights 1998, p. 14; Cm. 4404, p. 19. Back

37   cf. 2000 Annual Report, p. 9. Back

38   Q10. Back

39   Q37. Back

40   Council press release 7481/95, 29 May 1995. Back

41   HC 41 (1999-2000), para 25. Back

42   Cm 4458. Back

43   Sixth Report from the Committee, Session 1998-99, HC 349. Back

44   First Special Report from the Committee, Session 2000-01, Work of the Committee during the present Parliament: a progress report, HC 78, Appendix 1, p. 18. Back

45   HC 41 (1999-2000), para 25. Back

46   QQ122-3. Back

47   Seventh Report from the Committee, Session 1999-2000, Strategic Export Controls: Further report and parliamentary prior scrutiny, HC 467, para 29. Back

48   Q31. Back

49   Appendix 4, p. 28, para 37. Back

50   Q29. Back

51   HC 41 (1999-2000), para 22. Back

52   Appendix 4, p. 23, para 7. Back

53   Q114. Back

54   First Special Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, Session 2000-01, Work of the Committee during the Present Parliament: A progress report, HC 78, para 20. Back

55  Appendix 4, p. 25, para 22. Back

56  QQ 112-3; 2000 Annual Report, pp. 100-102.  Back

57  Amnesty International, Facts and Figures on the Death Penalty, dated 16 November 2000. Available at

58  Q 118. Back

59   Cm 4325. Back

60   Second Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, Session 1998-99, Sierra Leone, HC 116. Back

61   First Special Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, Session 2000-2001, Work of the Committee during the present Parliament: A progress report, HC 78. Back

62   HC Deb 5 November 2000, Col. 50W. Back

63   QQ22-27. Back

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Prepared 30 January 2001