Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Fifth Report


The Foreign Affairs Committee has agreed to the following Report:



We, like our predecessor Committee, are using the Human Rights Annual Report as a springboard for scrutinising the Government's human rights policy abroad over the
past year.
In this Report, we comment on:
  • the aftermath of September 11: the Government must show that human rights are central to its response to the terrorist threat. The Government must not lose sight of the need to criticise human rights abuses committed by its allies in the war against terrorism.
  • the form and content of the Annual Report: it should include brief information on every country which gives rise to significant human rights concerns. It should focus primarily not on information publicly available elsewhere, but on the Government's opinions and actions, and it should be blunt where these have not been successful.
  • countries and issues: the failure of diplomatic efforts in Zimbabwe shows that constructive engagement has its limits. The principal levers of pressure are with the regional powers, but these and the EU seem unwilling to act. The Government and its EU partners should promote a draft resolution on China at the next UN Commission on Human Rights. We applaud the Government for its policy on forced marriage. We will be making recommendations in due course on how best to regulate private military companies, in the light of the Government's long-awaited green paper on the subject.


1. In the last Parliament, the Foreign Affairs Committee conducted an annual scrutiny exercise of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's (FCO) policy on human rights, focussing on the Human Rights Annual Report produced by the Government since 1998. The Human Rights Annual Report 2001,[1] published in September of that year, has given us our first opportunity of the new Parliament to continue this practice.

2. We took oral evidence from Mr Peter Hain MP, Minister of State at the FCO, on 30 January. We have also received written evidence which appears on pages Ev 15 to Ev 59.

September 11: The Human Rights impact

3. The Human Rights Annual Report 2001 was written before—but launched by the Foreign Secretary just after—the events of September 11. We hope that the Foreign Secretary's undertaking, given at the launch of the Annual Report, that "the pursuit and promotion of human rights more generally has to be an integral part of our response to these events"[2] is not sidelined by the need to address security concerns at home and abroad. We agree wholeheartedly with what Peter Hain told us: "what would be the point of having a formidable and successful reaction to an international terrorist threat, as it has so far been and must continue to be, if human rights were ridden roughshod over in the course of it? We should be defeating the objective, which is to create a world which is safe, in which freedom and individual liberty is respected."[3] We conclude that the Government's response to terrorists who have no respect for human rights must be to show that human rights are central to its vision of a civilised world, and to how it responds to the terrorist threat.

4. It is with this in mind that we raised with Peter Hain concerns at the treatment by the United States authorities of prisoners detained at Guantanamo Bay.[4] Those who stand against international terrorism should behave—and be seen to behave—in accordance with international standards at all times, even if those standards might appear not to be deserved by those to whom they are being applied. It is both right, and it strengthens any representations we may make on behalf of our own nationals who may become prisoners in future. Furthermore, any conduct to the contrary would weaken the international coalition against terrorism. We have no reason to question Peter Hain's assurance to us that those prisoners to whom, in the view of the United States, the Geneva Conventions do not apply, are nonetheless "being treated humanely consistently with the principles of the Geneva Conventions in mind".[5]

5. International discussion of the status of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay has shown that there appears to be no common understanding of the application of the Geneva Conventions to non-state parties. Conflict and terrorist action involving non-state parties appear to be increasingly common, and it is therefore crucial that such an understanding be reached. If it emerges that the Geneva Conventions are ill-adapted to the realities of contemporary conflict, then it may be necessary to revise them accordingly. We recommend that the Government work within the United Nations to secure a common interpretation of the Geneva Conventions as they apply to non-state parties.

6. We are also concerned that the Government should not lose sight of the need to criticise and address human rights abuses which take place in countries which are our allies in the international coalition against terrorism, although we understand that in emergencies there will be an earnest debate on where to find the balance between security and liberty. Human Rights Watch claims in its World Report for 2002 that after September 11 "talk about human rights, good governance, and accountability was markedly reduced, and abuses more easily tolerated" and that "the US and British embrace of Musharraf in their anti­terrorism coalition effectively ended any international pressure for the restoration of democracy in Pakistan".[6] If true, this would be deeply disturbing.

7. We are somewhat reassured by Peter Hain's reassurances to us that the human rights dialogue with Pakistan continues,[7] and by his statement to us that "we can have members of an international coalition to fight a common threat of this awful kind whilst at the same time having a full and frank dialogue including, where appropriate, pressure with individual countries ... We are very conscious that the human rights agenda must not be made subsidiary."[8] We are concerned nonetheless that in concentrating on the need to build up a global alliance, the Government and its allies may have let human rights in countries which are supporters of the international coalition slip down their list of priorities. We recommend that the Government ensure that the human rights agenda is pursued with our allies in the war against terrorism as vigorously now as before September 11.

8. This is an issue which we will keep under scrutiny in our ongoing inquiry into Foreign Policy Aspects of the War against Terrorism, and when the next Human Rights Annual Report is published. We recommend that the next Human Rights Annual Report include a section which specifically addresses the impact of the events of September 11 and the war against terrorism on human rights across the world, as well as on the Government's policy and activity in the field of human rights, especially in those countries, including those in Europe and North America, which have played a part in the international coalition against terrorism.

Form and content of the Annual Report


9. Our predecessor committee argued for the inclusion of country-by-country information in the Human Rights Annual Report. In its last response,[9] the Government argued against this. It sought to justify the thematic approach of the Annual Report by using the example of Botswana, a country which, in the FCO's view, gives rise to specific human rights concerns regarding freedom of expression and retention of the death penalty but which "generally has a good human rights record".[10] The FCO argued that "the current thematic approach enables the Government to mention Botswana in relevant chapters, without appearing to criticise its overall record on human rights, which would not in our view be justified."[11] We are surprised, therefore, that in the Annual Report for 2001, Botswana is not mentioned in connection with the specific concerns raised by the FCO in May last year, nor for that matter in connection with the treatment of the Bushmen of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, a matter raised in evidence to us by Survival International.[12] That said, we accept that in its regional context Botswana according to most criteria is a model of good governance.

10. Thus, we do not single out Botswana for particular attention, but wish merely to point out that the FCO justified the thematic format of the Annual Report on the grounds that it would allow particular issues to be raised, which have not then been raised. The FCO argued against the inclusion of country-by-country information in May 2001 by saying that "countries not listed might become complacent and less amenable to UK efforts on human rights issues",[13] but the same argument could be levelled against the current Annual Report. Indeed it has been, by Christian Solidarity Worldwide, who write in their evidence to us that "there is a danger that a false signal may be sent to governments and other violators of human rights who are omitted from this report".[14]

11. As Peter Hain pointed out to us,[15] the Annual Report has increased substantially in size, from 55 pages in 1998 to 187 pages in 2001. The danger is that a document of this size gives the appearance of being comprehensive when in fact it is not. The reader of the Annual Report for 2001 might reasonably think that the Government has no human rights concerns and has taken no action in relation to human rights with Botswana, as well as, for example, the United Arab Emirates, Swaziland and Singapore. In order to avoid sending a false signal to countries not listed in the report, which might then become complacent and less amenable to UK efforts on human rights issues, we recommend that the FCO include in future Human Rights Annual Reports brief information—in chart form if necessary—on every country which gives rise to significant human rights concerns.


12. We agree with Peter Hain that there should be a limit to the size of the Annual Report, and that the current edition comes close to that limit. We were surprised though at his statement that he wanted the FCO "to be concentrating on promoting human rights abroad and projecting policy and getting it right ... rather than producing a bigger and more comprehensive report".[16] We too of course want the FCO to concentrate on promoting human rights abroad and projecting policy, but a targeted—and in its own way comprehensive—Human Rights Annual Report should be a tool to achieve this, not an obstacle in its path. We would not expect there to be a conflict between producing a thorough Human Rights Annual Report and implementing human rights policy effectively. The very process of creating the Annual Report should help the FCO to assess progress from a broader perspective, as well as promoting the values behind British foreign policy.

13. There is one way, however, in which future Annual Reports could be usefully reduced in size. The report concentrates mostly, as it should, on action taken and representations made by the British Government, and we would wish this information to be as comprehensive as possible. However, the report also duplicates information which can be found, in far more detail, in country reports from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the US State Department. The Government's Human Rights Annual Report could be made more comprehensive, without increasing its size, if this information were more succinctly put. For example, the section on Angola,[17] which describes at length human rights abuses in that country, makes no comment on what the British Government is doing in response. We recommend that in future Human Rights Annual Reports, the FCO should focus on providing comprehensive information on the British Government's opinions, representations and action on behalf of human rights worldwide, while keeping to a minimum information on the human rights situation in individual countries which is publicly available elsewhere. The Government should only need to set out at length its understanding of the human rights situation in a country where it believes that the other available sources of information are inaccurate or incomplete.


14. The main purpose of the Annual Report should be to enable this Committee, and the wider public, to assess the Government's policy and action in the human rights field as objectively and as fully as possible, and in so doing to make a comparison with previous years. The current Annual Report, however, for all its merits, seems to be as much about publicity as accountability. It is telling that in the course of the report, the word "success" occurs frequently, but the word "failure" is never once used in the context of Government policy or action. Peter Hain, in contrast to the Annual Report, was open in his oral evidence to us about the difficulties of conducting a critical dialogue with China[18] and the failure of constructive engagement in Zimbabwe.[19] We recommend that the next Human Rights Annual Report should be blunt where policies and activities have failed or not been fully successful, and should set out how they have evolved in response.


15. Previous Human Rights Annual Reports have begun with a foundation document, by setting out in full the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This Declaration provides a context for the report that follows by showing the human rights that we all can expect to enjoy and that Governments across the world have signed up to. In the Human Rights Annual Report 2001, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been moved to the back of the document. This is, in our view, unfortunate. We recommend that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights be reinstated at the beginning of future Human Rights Annual Reports.


16. In response to a recommendation from our predecessor Committee, the Government has included in this edition of the Human Rights Annual Report a breakdown of the activities of the Human Rights Project Fund (HRPF) and the Conflict Prevention Fund. We agree with our predecessor Committee that "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."[20]

17. The information provided on the Conflict Prevention Fund in this year's Annual Report[21] is useful and simply presented. For relatively small sums of money, the Government has supported worthwhile initiatives such as training fledgling political parties in Kosovo, bringing together Israeli and Palestinian NGO workers and academics as 'co-facilitators' and sponsoring seminars for journalists in Kashmir, Sudan and Georgia to promote balanced media coverage in situations of ethnic and religious tension.

18. With effect from April 2001, the Government has established inter-Departmental pooled budgets for conflict prevention, with a pool for sub-Saharan Africa managed from the Department for International Development, and a pool for the rest of the world managed from the FCO. We conclude that recent moves towards inter-departmental co-ordination in the area of conflict prevention are welcome, as is Peter Hain's undertaking to make available in future Human Rights Annual Reports information on the global pooled budget for conflict prevention. [22]

19. The information provided on the Human Rights Project Fund in this year's Annual Report is much less useful. The bar charts, while certainly colourful, are difficult to read, and the key to the second chart is incomplete. It is true, as Peter Hain assured us, that further information on the Fund is available on the Internet, but much of the information available through the HRPF database seems to be inaccurate or incomplete. Numerous projects have been entered twice on the database, with each of the entries often containing different information on cost and date of completion. In its current state, the database is not a useful tool. We recommend that in future Human Rights Annual Reports, information on the Human Rights Project Fund be provided in a more user-friendly, informative format, perhaps using the information provided this year for the Conflict Prevention Fund as a model. We further recommend that the information contained in the online Human Rights Project Fund database be thoroughly checked and corrected.

1   Cm. 5211 (cited henceforth as HRAR). Back

2   Statement by the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, at the launch of the Human Rights Annual Report, Monday 17 September 2001, available online at Back

3   Q20. Back

4   QQ2-15. Back

5   Q4. Back

6   Available online at Back

7   Q17. Back

8   QQ16 and 20. Back

9   Cm. 5216. Back

10   Op Cit, para 5. Back

11   Ibid. Back

12   Ev, pp. 43-46. Back

13   Cm. 5216, para 6. Back

14   Ev, p. 21. Back

15   Q21. Back

16   Ibid. Back

17   HRAR, pp. 70-71. Back

18   Q30. Back

19   Q37. Back

20   First Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, Session 2000-01, Human Rights Annual Report 2000, HC 79 (2000-01), para 12. Back

21   HRAR, pp. 142-144. Back

22   Q31. Back

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Prepared 28 February 2002