Select Committee on Foreign Affairs First Report

2  The International Framework

The United Nations

10. The UN Commission for Human Rights (UNCHR) is at present the chief UN forum for discussion of human rights. The 61st session of the UNCHR took place in Geneva from March to April 2005. The FCO Report commented on the events at the last session.

11. However, the UNCHR has come under criticism, since some countries argue that 'naming and shaming' at UNCHR is an infringement of national sovereignty, while others regret the role played by states with bad human rights records, such as Libya, in the work of the Commission thanks to the intricacies of UN General Assembly voting alliances.

12. In an effort to resolve these problems, at the World Conference in August 2005 the United Nations General Assembly agreed to establish a Human Rights Council (HRC), which would replace the UNCHR. The HRC "will assume the mandate of the Commission on Human Rights". The HRC will have 30 to 50 members, each elected by the General Assembly for three years by a two thirds majority, on a geographical basis. Each member will undertake to fulfil human rights standards and face evaluation under the review mechanism. The HRC will serve as a forum on thematic human rights questions; promote international co-operation in concert with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights; streamline human rights work in the UN system; review human rights in Member States; consult with non-governmental organisations; and publish an Annual Report for the General Assembly. The UN World Conference also strengthened the powers of the High Commissioner on Human Rights.[10] The United Kingdom has welcomed the establishment of the Council, although its establishment is taking longer than its advocates had hoped.[11]

13. Kate Allen from Amnesty International made clear what she hoped for from the Council, saying that it should operate on the same level as the Economic and Social Council. "We think that it needs to meet regularly, we think it needs to examine all countries; and we think it needs to have ability to deal with urgent situations."[12] She went on to emphasise the necessity of an expanded budget and of consultation with NGOs. [13]

14. The Minister went some way to assuage Amnesty International's concerns, when he told the Committee: "We also want [the HRC] to be a standing body that provides good access to non-governmental organisations."[14] He outlined how the "UK as the EU Presidency, has taken a leading role in developing the EU's position [on the HRC], including drafting and co-ordinating all the EU statements and position papers on the Council."[15] The Minister described the international lobbying campaign the UK is undertaking on the Human Rights Council, stating that "we are just about to enter a process of negotiations in terms of the exact remit of the Human Rights Council."[16] We also recognise that the United Kingdom has worked hard to bring serious human rights abusers to the attention of the UN Security Council; for instance, the UN Security Council discussed a report on human rights in Zimbabwe in July 2007 at the request of the United Kingdom and the USA, and the Government has previously called for discussions on Burma and Uganda.[17]

15. We welcome moves to establish a permanent Human Rights Council. We recommend that the Government ensure that the Council starts its work at the earliest opportunity. We further recommend that the Government outline what measures will be put in place to ensure that the Council's work does not suffer from tactical voting or ideological opposition from particular states, as was the problem with the UN Commission on Human Rights. We also recommend that the United Kingdom, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, should continue to make its utmost endeavours to bring the serious human rights situation in states such as Burma, Uganda and Zimbabwe to the Security Council's attention.

European Union

16. The European Union has placed human rights at the centre of its Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). Our predecessor committee asked the Government how it would shape the human rights debate in 2005 during its presidency of the European Union. The Government responded by describing its work to extend the remit of the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) in order to create a Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA). The Government also outlined its support for Michael Matthiessen in his post of Personal Representative of the Secretary General/High Representative on Human Rights in the area of Common Foreign and Security Policy, and said that the United Kingdom would urge him to implement the EU's existing human rights tools.[18] The FCO wrote: "The Government's primary objective on human rights during their EU presidency is effective and results-focused delivery of the EU's current wide range of human rights activity…We also aim to use our presidency to further embed "mainstreaming" of human rights in wider EU work."[19]

17. We recommend that the Government set out in its response to this Report the human rights achievements and disappointments of its Presidency of the European Union.

18. One particular area of success for the EU's human rights policy is in Turkey. Ankara's application to the European Union is dependent on complying with European standards in many areas, including human rights. The FCO Annual Report outlined some of the improvements recently made by Turkey, including:

  • Turkey's work to implement the Council of Europe's Committee for the Prevention of Torture's recommendations, although impunity continues to exists in the security forces.
  • The introduction of a new penal code which has "narrowed the scope for convictions of those expressing non-violent opinion" and growing freedom of religion thanks to a new law on foundations, which will put to rest some legal disputes over legal institutions.[20]
  • Greater efforts to comply with the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights, including a review of the controversial sentence of death against Kurdish guerrilla leader, Abdullah Ocalan, in 1999.
  • The appointment of a civilian to the National Security Council for the first time.
  • A slow process of transformation in the Kurdish regions thanks to a series of reforms implemented since 2000; these changes included new Kurdish language TV channels.
  • A strengthening of women's rights, by removing sentence reductions for honour killings.

19. Yet, much work still needs doing. Human Rights Watch contend that:

torture remains common in Turkey today. While the government has declared "zero tolerance" for torture and introduced important reforms in the past five years that have significantly reduced the frequency and severity of torture, ill-treatment persists because police and gendarmes (soldiers who police rural areas) in some areas ignore the new safeguards. Due to poor supervision of police stations, certain police units deny or delay detainees access to a lawyer, fail to inform families that their relatives have been detained, attempt to suppress or influence medical reports which record ill-treatment, and still do not reliably apply special protections for child detainees.[21]

20. The Kurdish Human Rights Project have similar concerns, describing the report as "too conciliatory", and saying that "although it is agreed that Turkey has recently introduced a wide range of legal and other reforms, KHRP…remain concerned that these reforms have not been put into practice."[22] Violations included torture and the limited implementation of the new laws on the use of the Kurdish language.[23]

21. However, the FCO stressed its belief in the implementation of human rights improvements in Turkey thanks to the incentive of EU accession, stating: "The Government has every confidence that the impetus towards human rights improvements in Turkey will be maintained following the start of EU accession negotiations. In response to the publication on 9 November of the European Commission's 2005 Regular Report on Turkey, the Turkish Foreign Minister said 'Our government is determined to implement the reforms, to deepen and strengthen democracy. We know our deficiencies and we are determined to overcome them in the coming process.'"[24]

22. We conclude that the incentive of EU accession has played an important role in prompting human rights improvements in Turkey. We recommend that the Government support the Turkish government in its implementation of legislative changes, and that it maintain pressure on Turkey to make further reforms.

International criminal architecture

The International Criminal Court (ICC)

23. The United Kingdom is a longstanding supporter of the International Criminal Court (ICC). The FCO's response to the Committee's Report last year said: "We believe in a strong International Criminal Court with global membership and jurisdiction to fight impunity for the most heinous crimes; crimes against humanity, genocide and war crimes. We are working with EU partners to urge more states to accede to the Rome Statute of the ICC so that the Court can enjoy the widest possible jurisdiction."[25] The Minister also told the Committee that the United Kingdom has "concluded agreements on information sharing and on witness relocation with the Court and we are negotiating an agreement on sentence enforcement."[26]

24. The Annual Report describes:

  • The first referral to the ICC by the UN Security Council, in March 2005, of the case of Darfur in Sudan, and the subsequent start of an investigation by the Prosecutor, in June 2005.
  • Investigations into two other cases: abuses in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda.
  • A budget of £46.4 million for 2005, of which the United Kingdom pays £5.9 million (12.8%).
  • Ratification of the Rome Statute by five more states, taking the total to 99.

25. The Annual Report also touched on the question of the United States' unwillingness to support the ICC, saying: "Not all states support the ICC. Some, most notably the US, are concerned that their citizens could be subjected to politically motivated 'nuisance' cases. We are satisfied that the safeguards in the ICC Statute will prevent the Court from pursuing such cases. We welcomed the flexibility shown by the US in allowing the Security Council to refer Darfur to the ICC."[27]

26. The United States has sought the agreement of states to sign non-surrender agreements for American citizens in the event of a request from the ICC; around 100 have been signed so far.[28] Commenting on the problem of the USA and the ICC, Human Rights Watch regretted "that the UK support for the court has not always been as strong as we would have hoped. Thus, in July 2004, the UK was ready to permit the United States to force through a resolution which would have allowed Washington to renew a special immunity from the court. Other governments resisted the proposal strongly, and the US was eventually forced to withdraw its dangerous resolution. Britain was, at that time, supporting rather than confronting Washington's dangerous actions."[29] Human Rights Watch did, however, praise the Government's role in persuading the USA not to block the referral of Darfur to the ICC, "by the end if not at the beginning."[30] Human Rights Watch also raised concerns that the presentation of the referral of the Lord's Resistance Army indictment "was done at a press conference by the Ugandan president, and it almost appeared to be a government indictment…and I think it was very unfortunate for the prosecutor to be standing there publicly side by side with the president."[31]

27. We asked the Minister about the ICC and he made clear to the Committee that the USA's stance on the ICC was "a point of disagreement between us and the Americans."[32] He also stated that the United Kingdom had not signed a non-surrender agreement with the USA, and had no plans to do so.[33]

28. We recommend that in its response to this Report the Government set out what it is doing to encourage other states actively to support the ICC.


29. The Annual Report describes the work of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), outlining how the Tribunal needs to transfer some smaller scale cases to local courts and how UNSCR 1581 will make trial proceedings more efficient. Recent events have changed circumstances. On 4 October 2005 Prosecutor Carla del Ponte announced that Croatia was in compliance with the ICTY demands and Croatia's negotiation talks for accession to the EU started.[34] Then on 8 December 2005, Croatia's foremost war crimes indictee, General Ante Gotovina, was arrested in Spain.[35]

30. Before these events, concerns existed that Croatia's entry to the EU was part of a political deal to ease Turkish entry to the European Union. Indeed, Steve Crawshaw told the Committee: "We would regret very deeply if political deals were done which meant that justice was put to one side."[36]

31. Other states such as Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia and Montenegro now need to fulfil their obligations to the ICTY; the war crimes indictees Radovan Karadic and Ratko Mladic are still at large. The Minister told us: "We have made it very plain to Croatia and to Serbia that they must co-operate with the International Criminal Tribunal to the former Yugoslavia and we have stressed to them that their Euro-Atlantic integration—ie their membership of the European Union and of NATO—would depend on it."[37]

32. We conclude that the capture of war crimes indictee Ante Gotovina is a most welcome development, but stress that accession to either the EU or NATO should remain impossible for any of the Balkan states, including Croatia, until they have fulfilled all of their obligations to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

10   United Nations World Conference, Draft Outcome Document, 5 August 2005 Back

11   Royal Institute of International Affairs, Speech by Ambassador John Bolton of the USA, 14 October 2005 Back

12   Q 1 Back

13   Q 1 Back

14   Q 76 Back

15   Q 75 Back

16   Q 75 Back

17   "Zimbabwe discussed at UN Security Council", BBC News Online, 27 July 2005,; "UN stages rare Burma discussion", BBC News Online, 17 December 2005,; "UK wants UN report on war in North", Daily Monitor, 16 December 2005 Back

18   Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Response of the Secretary of State of Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Annual Report on Human Rights, Cm 6571, May 2005 Back

19   Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Response of the Secretary of State of Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Annual Report on Human Rights, Cm 6571, May 2005 Back

20   Human Rights Annual Report 2005, p105 Back

21   "Torture Worldwide", Human Rights Watch, 27 April 2005 Back

22   Ev 100 Back

23   Ev 100 Back

24   Ev 48, para 5 Back

25   Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Response of the Secretary of State of Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Annual Report on Human Rights, Cm 6571, May 2005. Back

26   Q 86 Back

27   Human Rights Annual Report 2005, p157 Back

28   "Court probes Sudan 'war crimes'", 'BBC News Online, 6 June 2005, Back

29   Ev 24 Back

30   Q 2 Back

31   Q 2 Back

32   Q 80 Back

33   Q 87 Back

34   "Analysis: Croatia in EU limbo", BBC News Online, 3 October 2005, Back

35   "Croatian fugitive general seized", BBC News Online, 8 December 2005, Back

36   Q 4 Back

37   Q 92 Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2006
Prepared 23 February 2006