Select Committee on Foreign Affairs First Report

1  Introduction

1. In 1998, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), in collaboration with the Department for International Development (DFID), published the first of what has become a series of Annual Human Rights Reports.[1] Robin Cook MP, the then Foreign Secretary, and Clare Short MP, the then Secretary of State for International Development, introduced the first Report by stating their intent to work "for a more just and peaceful world, in which human rights are genuinely universal", and emphasising that "we cannot afford to treat human rights as an optional extra".[2]

2. In 2005, the eighth Annual Human Rights Report was published.[3] As has been our practice since the publication of the first Report in 1998, we have scrutinised the Report in order to evaluate its successes and identify its shortcomings. We announced our inquiry on 7 October 2005 and received a wide range of written evidence from Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and other interested parties. We also took oral evidence on 16 November 2005, from Kate Allen, Director, and Tim Hancock, Head of Policy and Government Affairs, Amnesty International UK, and Steve Crawshaw, London Director, Human Rights Watch, and on 23 November 2005 from Ian Pearson MP, Minister of State for Human Rights and Minister of State for Trade, Foreign and Commonwealth Office. We would like to thank all those who assisted us in this process by submitting evidence to the inquiry.

3. The Human Rights Annual Report 2005 begins with a chapter examining the challenges posed by some of the world's most problematic states, followed by thematic chapters covering the multiplicity of Foreign and Commonwealth Office work on human rights. Over the years we have been pleased to see our comments on the form and content of the Human Rights Report reflected in the finished product. This year we were gratified to note that, in accordance with recommendations we made in our last Report, a number of positive changes had been made.

4. Commenting on the Report, Amnesty International wrote: "The 2005 Report is a slimmer document than its two immediate predecessors. Nevertheless, it is still a comprehensive report providing a thorough overview, on the whole, of the work that the government has been doing to protect and promote human rights worldwide."[4]

5. We conclude that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Human Rights Annual Report 2005 makes a substantial contribution to the transparency and visibility of the Government's work in this important area. Notwithstanding these remarks, there are aspects of the Report which we feel could be improved, which we discuss below.

6. Two general concerns were expressed to us about the FCO's work. First, Amnesty International pointed to the FCO's decision to subsume human rights within sustainable development work, which they felt indicates that human rights work does not "warrant treatment as a stand alone strategic priority." [5] We asked the FCO how it defined a human rights project. The FCO told us that a "human rights project is one that furthers HMG's human rights priorities and objectives in the country concerned. This means that projects will vary from one country to another and from one region to another, according to the human rights issues in that country…The Government does not therefore categorise a human rights project according to whether or not this is explicitly stated in the project title, but whether we judge it will have a positive impact on the human rights situation in that country or region concerned."[6] This definition is the same as provided last year, and raises the same fears for Amnesty International: "It is difficult not to interpret this to mean that a human rights project is what the FCO says it is."[7] We share these concerns.

7. Second, the Minister of State who is responsible for human rights has two seemingly contradictory roles. He is also the Minister of State for Trade. He therefore combines the two jobs of on the one hand prosecuting the United Kingdom's trading interest and on the other hand advocating human rights. It is inevitable that these two roles will sometimes stand in sharp contradiction. The Committee asked the Minister about his dual responsibilities. He said: "I think that it is pretty much standard practice that UK Ministers have raised human rights issues but raised a lot of other issues as well…I certainly do not have any problems in raising the issue of human rights at appropriate opportunities and then also raising trade matters."[8]

8. In the light of these developments we share some of Amnesty International's concerns, when they said: "The manner in which the 2005 report has been produced, the less than rational inclusion of human rights under sustainable development, changes to the funding arrangements for human rights projects, and even the less central location for the Human Rights, Democracy and Good Governance Group within the FCO all point to what we consider to be the declining influence of human rights in shaping UK foreign policy."[9]

9. We conclude that the Government risks downgrading its human rights work by combining human rights responsibilities with trade in the person of the same minister and also by subsuming human rights work into the more general category of sustainable development.

1   Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Department for International Development, Annual Report on Human Rights, April 1998 Back

2   Ibid, p 5 Back

3   Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Human Rights Annual Report 2005, Cm 6606, July 2005, hereafter Human Rights Annual Report 2005 Back

4   Ev 2, para 2 Back

5   Ev 2, para 6 Back

6   Ev 47, para 1 Back

7   Ev 3, para 7 Back

8   Q 72 Back

9   Ev 3, para 11 Back

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Prepared 23 February 2006