Select Committee on Foreign Affairs First Report

4  General themes


82. In the Annual Report, the FCO writes: "The period covered by this Report has seen extraordinary progress in the spread of democracy around the world. Events in Georgia and Ukraine, in particular, have highlighted the changes across Europe since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Elections in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown the strength of will of people to participate in the democratic process; at the same time, these elections have been an important element in the process of conflict resolution."[118]

83. The Report covers Ukraine's "Orange Revolution" in some detail, pointing out that the United Kingdom provided many observers for the OSCE and worked on programmes to inform the public about democracy in the run up to the elections. The Report also comments on the reform process in Georgia, although with some provisos. "Freedom of information remains an issue in Georgia. The government claims that the media self-censors but there have been complaints that some media owners practice censorship."[119]

84. However, Human Rights Watch has raised concerns about whether these revolutions have actually contributed to democracy in the former Soviet Union.

This time last year, after reformists in Georgia staged the "Rose Revolution" that ousted President Eduard Shevardnadze, many wondered what lessons governments in the region would draw. No leader relishes political instability. But the question was, what would the region's leaders do to avoid it? Would they promote honest elections, greater accountability, better governance and peaceful transitions of power? Or would they ignore the issues that cause public discontent, such as entrenched, widespread corruption, and undermine the political opposition and democratic institutions in order to retain power at all costs? Overwhelmingly, governments in former Soviet states have chosen the latter path, continuing policies that had started well before the Georgian revolt. Uzbekistan may be one of the more acute examples of this trend but it has plenty of company.[120]

85. Some concerns about Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan underplayed in the FCO Annual Report include: changes in electoral laws in Georgia's capital, Tbilisi, and a restructuring of the Central Electoral Committee which offer advantage to President Saakashvili's incumbent New Movement Party, alongside ongoing use of torture by security forces;[121] political assassinations of prominent figures in the revolution in Kyrgyzstan alongside strong concerns about the influence of organised crime in the governmental process;[122] and continued concerns about press freedom in Ukraine.[123] Additionally, the controversial elections in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan raised concerns. The OSCE election monitoring mission wrote of the Azerbaijani elections that "the election day process deteriorated progressively during the day and, particularly, the tabulation of the votes."[124] Other problems, such as intimidation of other candidates by the government, "limited the possibility for meaningful competition" in Kazakhstan.[125] These issues underline the importance of continued democracy building and effective international monitoring in the former Soviet Union, the crucial role played by civil society groups and nascent regional institutions and confidence building measures such as the South Caucasus Parliamentary Initiative (SCPI), and the work of major international institutions such as the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).[126]

86. Steve Crawshaw pointed to a marked difference in tone in dealing with the relevant governments. He said: "Clearly there are lots of problems but again, as a human rights organisation, one does grasp at the times when you can say that the glass is at least half-full and not pretty much on empty. Broadly, the fact that those changes have taken place is to be welcomed."[127] The Minister agreed that the revolutions were most welcome, and rejected the suggestion that human rights concerns might be subordinated to strategic interests when it came to dealing with states in the former Soviet Union.[128]

87. We conclude that while the expansion of democracy in the former Soviet Union is most welcome, free elections are still a rarity and human rights abuses are widespread. We recommend that the Government work to support civil society organisations and regional institutions, such as the South Caucasus Parliamentary Initiative (SCPI), as well as supporting the election monitoring and evaluation work of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and in particular its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), in order to help implant strong and enduring human rights norms in the post-Soviet world.

The arms trade and military assistance

88. The Annual Report on Human Rights includes a discussion on small arms and light weapons (SALW). The Report says: "Foreign Secretary Jack Straw announced during a speech at the Institute of Civil Engineers London on 15 March 2005 that the UK will work to secure an international Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) covering all conventional weapons. This would be a legally binding treaty negotiated at the UN and backed by the UN's authority that would make the responsible transfer of all conventional arms a statutory requirement."[129] The UK will work towards setting criteria within an ATT based on standards such as those in the UN Declaration on Human Rights, and so will regulate better the arms trade. The UK position is gathering strength; the European Union announced its backing for the ATT on 4 October 2005, marking a significant growth in international support for the treaty.[130]

89. This stance has been welcomed by human rights organisations. Kate Allen told us: "We are very pleased by the Foreign Secretary's support for an arms trade treaty. I think that the support of the UK Government is absolutely brilliant and very essential to see the potential for that treaty, and we would very much want to congratulate the Foreign Secretary and the British Government on that support."[131]

90. We commend the Government's backing for the Arms Trade Treaty. We recommend that in its response to this Report the Government report on progress to increase support for the ATT and to ensure forward momentum in 2006.

91. However, concerns have been expressed to us about aspects of UK policy towards military exports. Saferworld raised general concerns about the United Kingdom's arms export policy, and "that the Government's policy on arms exports continues to undermine its commitments on human rights. In 2004, the Government authorised arms sales to 19 of the 20 states identified in the Human Rights Report as "major states of concern"."[132] Amnesty International made a similar point; Kate Allen said: "The only country of concern that is not receiving arms exports from the UK is North Korea."[133]

92. The Human Rights Minister rejected such suggestions, saying that it was important to examine the details because "the reality of it is that in a lot of these cases it will be bomb-disposal equipment, it will be de-mining equipment, it will be body armour, it might be communications equipment to help their policing operations work more effectively in dealing with drugs problems."[134]

93. One particular state of concern is Colombia.[135] The FCO Annual Report has an extensive section on Colombia, which it classes as a country of concern. The report outlines the many human rights problems in Colombia, such as the murder of trades unionists.[136] Human Rights Watch has also drawn attention to the culture of impunity and links between the army, paramilitary groups and criminal gangs and the grey area between the official military and those carrying out extrajudicial killings.[137]

94. AB Colombia raised concerns about the UK's military assistance to Colombia, stating:

There are well established links between paramilitary groups and the State, and elements within the Armed Forces continue to carry out extrajudicial executions, torture and violations of due process…Despite this, the UK continues to express strong political support for the Colombian government, and provides significant military support to the Colombian government, with little or no analysis of its impact. In this context, it is difficult to assess how the UK government can guarantee, as it claims to do, that this cooperation does not end up in any way contributing to human rights abuses or to impunity in the absence of Colombia's full implementation of the UN human rights recommendations.[138]

95. The Annual Report states that the FCO uses "the best information available to assure ourselves that Colombian civil and military authorities benefiting from UK assistance are not engaged in activities that violate human rights, aid internal repression or are in collusion with paramilitary organisations."[139] Additionally, the Minister defended the United Kingdom's military assistance to Colombia in the evidence session. He said: "UK military assistance to Colombia focuses on mine-disposal training and human rights training…UK military training introduces security personnel to British defence concepts, including the importance of accountable and democratic action, and we use the best information available to assure ourselves that Colombian military personnel benefiting from UK assistance are not engaged in activities that violate human rights or that aid internal repression and that they are not in collusion with paramilitary organisations. This goes as far as including personal interviews and background checks."[140]

96. We recommend that the Government include a detailed explanation of export licence decisions in each of the countries of concern sections of the Annual Report so as to ease public concern about military exports to those states, including Colombia.

Corporate social responsibility (CSR)

97. The Annual Report describes the Government's recent work to advance CSR, outlining how the United Kingdom sponsored a successful resolution at the UNCHR calling for the appointment of a Special Representative on Corporate Social Responsibility. The new post will: identify standards of corporate responsibility and accountability; research and clarify concepts such as "complicity" and "sphere of influence"; and develop means to assess the impact of business on human rights.[141]

98. The Report states: "We want an outcome that will require multinationals to support, rather than inhibit, respect for human rights through their activities. But we must also address genuine business concerns about the extent of its responsibilities and maintain the principle that states only hold obligations under human rights law."[142] The FCO's Annual Report on the Global Opportunities Fund describes its support for CSR programmes in China and outlines its support for two initiatives which seek to establish higher standards of CSR in business, such as the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) and the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Companies. [143]

99. However, some human rights organisations have concerns about the Government's approach to CSR. Global Witness, for instance, argues that companies should be subject to an International Financial Reporting Standard (IFRS), requiring them to reveal country by country activity in three particular areas: commercial performance, taxes and other benefits paid to host governments, and reserves.[144] Their concerns have gained weight from the willingness of companies from states such as China to do business in countries with documented records of human rights abuses. Beijing's lack of concern about human rights has also helped Chinese business win contracts in other states with poor human rights records like Zimbabwe and Sudan, as well as other states with a historical scepticism towards western intervention, economic or political, in Africa and Latin America. [145]

  1. We conclude that the Government must do its utmost to encourage states to improve their corporate social responsibility (CSR) standards so that companies can compete on a level playing field and that states with human rights failings are not tempted to work with unethical trading partners. We recommend that the Government work to broaden international support for instruments, like the UN Convention against Corruption, which enshrine ethical standards for business at an international level.

118   Human Rights Annual Report 2005, p 205 Back

119   Human Rights Annual Report 2005, p 117 Back

120   "Beyond Ukraine a Grim Picture", Human Rights Watch, 8 December 2004 Back

121   "Tbilisi's election law fuels opposition", Eurasianet, 6 July 2005, Back

122   ,"Kyrgyzstan's revolution at risk", Eurasianet, 26 September 2005, Back

123   "Opportunity for reform: human rights agenda in Ukraine", Human Rights Watch, 21 January 2005 Back

124   Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, International Election Monitoring Mission, Parliamentary Election, Republic of Azerbaijan, 7 November 2005, Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions Back

125   Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, International Election Monitoring Mission, Presidential Election, Republic of Kazakhstan, 4 December 2005, Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions Back

126   " Thousands in fresh Azeri protest", BBC News Online, 5 December 2005,; "Kazakhstan election 'not democratic'", BBC News Online, 19 November 2005, Back

127   Q 37 Back

128   Q 162 Back

129   Human Rights Annual Report 2005, p 151 Back

130   "EU backs global small arms treaty", BBC News Online, 3 October 2005, Back

131   Q 53 Back

132   Ev 97 Back

133   Q 54 Back

134   Q 157 Back

135   Human Rights Annual Report 2005, p 49 Back

136   Ev 93 Back

137   "Colombia: Smoke and Mirrors", Human Rights Watch, August 2005, Vol 17 No. 3 Back

138   Ev 83 Back

139   Human Rights Annual Report 2005, p 49 Back

140   Q 176 Back

141   Human Rights Annual Report 2005, p 178 Back

142   Human Rights Annual Report 2005, p 178 Back

143   Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Global Opportunities Fund: Annual Report 2004-05, 12 October 2005 Back

144   "Extracting transparency: The need for an International Financial Reporting Standard for the Extractive Industries", Global Witness, 2005, Back

145   Jamestown Foundation, China Brief, Vol V, Issue 21, 13 October 2005 Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2006
Prepared 23 February 2006