Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Ninth Report

2  The International Framework

Q 1  The United Nations

13. The United Nations remains the bedrock of international efforts to promote human rights. In recent years, human rights have been considered in a number of different UN institutions, increasingly including the Security Council. Most significantly, the General Assembly established a Human Rights Council in 2006 to replace the Commission on Human Rights, which had been much criticised for failing to take sufficient action against prominent human rights violators. In our report last year, we welcomed this move and expressed our hope that the Council would be more effective than its predecessor at dealing with states that have committed serious human rights abuses.[18]

14. The Government's report outlines the challenges facing the new Council. It argues that, in its early months, the Council had a "disproportionate and unbalanced focus" on the situation in the Middle East.[19] Tom Porteous, London Director of Human Rights Watch, told us that if the Council focuses too heavily on Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, "there is a big problem". He added that unless it considered human rights crises elsewhere, "it will not have the credibility that it needs to make a better impression than that of its predecessor".[20] In its submission, the National Secular Society argues that the majority of members of the Council were failing to protect, or "actively impeding" the right to freedom of expression.[21]

15. Lord Malloch-Brown argued that the Council's "voting record is more balanced and better than the general public commentary might suggest", pointing to a resolution on Darfur.[22] However, in our report last year, we recommended that the Government should publish a table showing how key states voted on certain resolutions.[23] The Government accepted this recommendation. Out of the ten key resolutions provided in this year's report, it is revealing to note that the UK Government voted against the resolution seven times, abstained three times, and did not vote in favour of any. An indication of the political direction of these resolutions comes from the fact that Saudi Arabia and Cuba voted in favour of each one.[24] It appears, therefore, that there is some way to go in ensuring the Council passes significant resolutions that the Government feels able to endorse.

16. An innovation of the Human Rights Council has been the 'Universal Periodic Review'. This process involves a peer review of all member states of the UN once every four years on their human rights practices.[25] This is followed by the adoption of a document by the Council considering to what extent each state is meeting its obligations under relevant international human rights law and any other voluntary commitments that have been made. Kate Allen argued that the process was "a good one". She added that the UK was one of the first countries to go through the review.[26] However, Tom Porteous said Human Rights Watch was "disappointed" by the "timidity" of Governments in criticising Algeria and Tunisia, whereas he felt the UK and the Czech Republic "came in for some pretty heavy criticism".[27]

17. Lord Malloch-Brown informed the Committee that the UK has sufficient faith in the potential of the Council "to be engaged in a very tough, competitive election at the moment to get re-elected as a member". A country can only be a member for two consecutive terms, and he revealed that the Government had considered stepping down at the end of its first term. However, he argued that because the Council was "weak and needs help", the Government decided to stand for re-election.[28] This has been strongly welcomed by Human Rights Watch. Tom Porteous said the UK "has played an excellent role" at the Council, working hard to "fight off efforts" by other Governments who are seeking to water down its institutions.[29] The UK's re-election bid succeeded in May 2008.

18. The United States is not a member of the Council. Lord Malloch-Brown expressed hope that it would soon join, and stated that it has been a goal of the Government "to keep the US engaged, informed and involved so that the bureaucracy is on board to come back once there is an Administration willing to do so". However, he noted that the Council has been subject to significant criticism by much of the American media and many of its NGOs.[30]

19. We conclude that the Government has demonstrated commendable commitment to the Human Rights Council. We welcome its decision to stand for re-election, and its success in achieving this. We recommend that, in its response to this Report, the Government should set out its priorities for strengthening the work of the Council.

The Arms Trade Treaty

20. In previous reports, we have welcomed the Government's leading role in pushing for an Arms Trade Treaty (ATT).[31] The FCO's report sets out the progress made towards such a treaty, which it hopes will establish "globally agreed high standards of international regulation of the trade in all conventional arms". The scope of the treaty is being discussed at the United Nations, and the report notes that an "unprecedented" number of countries have submitted their views to the Secretary-General. A group of government experts will meet throughout 2008 to consider these papers, and the UK will be represented by the British Ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva.[32]

21. Amnesty International praises the Government's approach towards the Arms Trade Treaty, stating that "the Government has been at the forefront of support for the ATT initiative."[33] When she appeared before the Committee, Kate Allen discussed the Government's role further, adding:

    I think that there are some dangers, such as complacency and a feeling that the arms trade treaty has been done and has been through the General Assembly as an issue, so the danger is that it might now get lost. Our call from Amnesty is very much to maintain the UK Government's concentration on the Arms Trade Treaty. There is a long way yet to go in devising the detail of the treaty and in ensuring that it is strong and effective.

She also noted another danger, namely that sceptical countries like India, Pakistan, Russia, Egypt and China were on the group of government experts and may seek to water down any eventual treaty.[34] As we noted in our report last year, the US opposes the treaty as it believes it already has sufficient export controls in place.[35]

22. Amnesty International's submission calls for any future treaty to be "as comprehensive in scope as possible", applying to "all conventional arms, including their components, manufacturing technology, production equipment and relevant dual-use goods".[36] We agree that a failure to consider these relevant categories could lead to loopholes in the treaty. In its written submission, Saferworld argues that the Government should make the ATT a "foreign policy priority". It commends the Government for generating "considerable momentum" for the initiative, but it warns that the Government needs to lobby both supportive and less supportive states to ensure the process is not derailed.[37]

23. We conclude that the Government has played a leading role in building support for an Arms Trade Treaty. We recommend that the Government should continue its efforts with vigour and determination, in particular by aiming to convince sceptical states that the treaty will be most effective if it includes all conventional arms.

Cluster Munitions

24. A cluster munition is an "air-carried or ground-launched disperser, containing numerous sub-munitions, which is designed to eject those sub-munitions over a pre-defined target area".[38] In our 2006 human rights report, and our report into Global Security: The Middle East, we raised strong concerns about the humanitarian impact of cluster munitions, and questioned the Government's justification for continuing to stock them.[39]

25. This year's FCO report highlights the "hazardous legacy" faced by civilian populations following a conflict in which cluster munitions are used. It notes two mechanisms seeking to implement international regulation of cluster munitions - the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) and the Oslo process.[40] In our report last year, we noted how the Government appeared to shift focus from working through the slower CCW process to the Oslo initiative by signing a strongly-worded declaration calling for a legally binding instrument that would prohibit the use, transfer or stockpiling of cluster munitions that "cause unacceptable harm to civilians".[41]

26. We took oral evidence from Lord Malloch-Brown before the final Dublin meeting of the Oslo process. He told us that "the definition of what range of cluster munitions should be banned" was an outstanding issue, with the Government pushing for a "narrower definition" than the whole category of cluster munitions, as it was "reluctant" to give up its arsenal of weapons, including the M85 sub-munition.[42] Kate Allen argued to us that it was "inconsistent to look for those exemptions" from any eventual cluster munitions treaty, and urged the Government to sign up to a "complete ban".[43]

27. As the Dublin Diplomatic Conference unfolded, the media reported tensions within the Government over its negotiations regarding the scope of the ban, with the Ministry of Defence seeking a narrower definition, and the Department for International Development and the FCO seeking a more comprehensive prohibition on the weapons. It was reported that, with the support of the Prime Minister, the Government was moving towards a position of agreeing to a complete ban on cluster munitions.[44] An agreement between delegates from the 110 states involved in the process was eventually reached to ban current designs of cluster munitions on 28 May 2008, with the Prime Minister arguing that it was "in line with British interests and values, and makes the world a safer place."[45] He later told the House: "I was pleased that the United Kingdom was able to break the deadlock in the negotiations that were taking place and pleased that other countries followed us in making their decision that they too would ban cluster bombs".[46] The FCO told us that the UK "has withdrawn from service all its cluster munitions."[47]

28. In its report, the FCO praised the CCW process as it would "have the advantage of including the major users and producers of cluster munitions".[48] A number of key states, such as the United States, have not signed up to the new Oslo-inspired Convention on Cluster Munitions. The US Department of Defence put out a statement rejecting the Convention, arguing that "cluster munitions have demonstrated military utility, and their elimination from US stockpiles would put the lives of our soldiers and those of our coalition partners at risk". Other countries that are major users or producers of the weapon, but not included in the Oslo process, include China, Russia and Israel.[49] The Prime Minister told the House that such countries have to be "brought in" and stated his "intention to talk to all those countries to see that we can have a global treaty".[50]

29. Another issue of concern is that of inter-operability, where countries that have not acceded to the Convention conduct joint military operations with countries that have (for instance, the US and the UK). Tom Porteous argued to us that the US was putting pressure on the UK to "include this exemption in the treaty".[51] This exemption was agreed to in the Convention. Amnesty International said that this was "controversial" and "disappointing".[52]

30. We conclude that the Government's eventual support for the prohibition of all current cluster munitions is very welcome. We recommend that, in its response to this Report, the Government should set out its strategy for obtaining the support of the US Government and other non-signatories to a ban on cluster munitions, and the implications of the Convention for future military co-operation with such states.

Corporate Social Responsibility

31. The FCO's report claims that the Government is taking "increasing account of the rising power of business in world affairs". It adds that "more than ever", the Government has "sought partnership with companies in order to influence global change and meet our human rights obligations". One way of promoting corporate social responsibility has been through supporting the work of John Ruggie, who has been appointed as the UN Secretary-General's Special Representative on Human Rights and Transnational Corporations, tasked with exploring the range of voluntary and mandatory measures that multinational companies take into account and suggesting how these might be improved.[53]

32. The FCO published its "first ever strategy on international corporate social responsibility" in February 2007. The report claims it has "prompted a step change" in the FCO's engagement with business. In its submission, Amnesty International congratulates the Government for developing its strategy, but notes that the strategy document makes reference to the implementation of the [then] Department of Trade and Industry's "International Strategic Framework for Corporate Social Responsibility". This, according to Amnesty, raises questions as to whether the Government has two strategies and over which Department should take the lead on this.[54] Kate Allen argued to us that, in both these strategies, the role of the Department for International Development has been "ignored a bit".[55]

33. An issue of debate is whether corporate social responsibility is best achieved through voluntary or mandatory mechanisms. Tom Porteous told us that the "plethora" of voluntary agreements were welcome but that Human Rights Watch, along with a growing number of businesses, believes that "without regulation, you will not get very far. The voluntary principles are fine and have got us some way, but they will be only partly effective." Expanding his answer, he noted:

    The reason why businesses are coming to the conclusion that regulation might be necessary is that the smaller businesses that can get under the radar are able to continue engaging in abusive practices. It is the big companies that suffer, because they are the ones with the reputations. They want to have a completely level playing field. With the growing influence of China, Malaysia and countries in parts of the world like Africa, big business is beginning to realise that, if a regulatory framework can create that level playing field, it will be to their advantage.[56]

Kate Allen told us that she agreed with this position, adding that:

    Professor John Ruggie clearly points out that this is one of the governance gaps following globalisation-it is a total anomaly that a parent company and its subsidiaries continue to be treated as distinct entities and that the parent company has no responsibility for the actions of its subsidiaries. These are issues that, in a globalised world, have just got to be challenged.[57]

34. We wrote to the FCO asking whether it agreed with this assessment. It replied:

    The UK does not support the introduction of specific mandatory mechanisms to ensure businesses protect human rights. We believe that, at present, voluntary mechanisms and other non-legal approaches have more to offer in this field. States have an obligation to protect their populations from human rights abuses, which is why HMG is keen to mobilise international opinion to support practical political initiatives and encourage private sector good practice.[58]

35. We conclude that the Government has made a good start to its work on corporate social responsibility.

International Criminal Law

36. The promotion of human rights around the world is fundamentally linked to advances in international criminal law. This has not always been the case. The classical approach to international law focused on the rights of sovereign nation states and diplomatic immunity, not on the individual. However, ever since the Nuremberg trials that followed the Second World War, there has been a growing recognition that the international framework has a role to play in ensuring accountability for severe human rights abuses, even when carried out by agents of a state against its own population.

37. One manifestation of international criminal law has been the establishment of a number of international criminal tribunals, most notably for crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. On a more institutional level, the International Criminal Court (ICC) has been created. The FCO report states that the UK has provided "strong support" to these tribunals, and argues that they "continue to make significant advances in the fight against impunity".

38. The FCO report notes that the ICC will proceed with its first trial in 2008. Thomas Lubanga Dyilo is accused of war crimes allegedly committed in the Democratic Republic of Congo. There are currently four ongoing investigations at the Court, with Darfur, Uganda and now the Central African Republic also coming under its scrutiny. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia continues with its work, but three indictees remain at large, including Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, wanted for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, including in relation to the massacre at Srebrenica in 1995. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda is making "good progress", and the Government is in active discussions at the UN to ensure it will receive the resources required to complete its work. Finally, the Special Court for Sierra Leone commenced the trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor in June 2007, which the report describes as a "major landmark in international justice". The UK has made a commitment to imprison Mr Taylor should he be found guilty.[59]

39. The continued failure to bring Messrs Karadzic and Mladic to justice represents a weakness in the international criminal system, namely its ability in securing the detention of those accused of gross human rights abuses. In Uganda, indicted members of the Lord's Resistance Army have asked its Government to request a deferral of ICC warrants and establish national mechanisms to try those accused of war crimes, perhaps with a view to seeking more lenient judgment. The FCO has stated that it is "vital" that those who have committed crimes in Uganda are held to account, and places the onus on the Ugandan Government to demonstrate that national courts could do so.[60]

40. A further impediment to international justice is the continued opposition of major countries to the principles behind the ICC. Out of the permanent five members of the UN Security Council, only the UK and France are State parties to the Rome Statue of the ICC, with the United States, Russia and China remaining outside the system.[61] Given the particular role afforded to the Security Council by the Rome Statute (it has the power to refer crimes committed in states that have not ratified the Rome Statute to the Prosecutor of the ICC[62]), the lack of support by these key countries can only hamper the advancement of international justice. Whilst the Security Council did, exceptionally, refer the situation in Darfur to the ICC, it does not look likely that it will do so in the equally disturbing cases of Burma or Zimbabwe. Without this support, there is little that can be done in international criminal law to hold President Robert Mugabe or the Burmese junta to account. The mechanisms are in place, but the political will is not.

41. We conclude that the progress made by the International Criminal Court is to be welcomed. However, international criminal law will only be effective in preventing human rights abuses if applied in a systematic and consistent way. We recommend that the Government should continue to urge the next President and Congress of the United States to accede to the Rome Statute of the ICC. We further recommend that the Government should seek to extend the ambit of the role of the ICC so that any individual who clearly and deliberately commits gross life-taking and life-threatening violations of human rights can be brought before it.

18   Foreign Affairs Committee, Third Report of Session 2006-07, Human Rights Annual Report 2006, HC 269, paras 12-19 Back

19   Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Human Rights Annual Report 2007, Cm 7340, March 2008, p 46 Back

20   Q 1 Back

21   Ev 107 Back

22   Q 49 Back

23   Foreign Affairs Committee, Third Report of Session 2006-07, Human Rights Annual Report 2006, HC 269, para 19 Back

24   Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Human Rights Annual Report 2007, Cm 7340, March 2008, p 55 Back

25   Q 1 Back

26   Q 2 Back

27   Q 1 Back

28   Q 49 Back

29   Q 1 Back

30   Q 50 Back

31   Foreign Affairs Committee, Third Report of Session 2006-07, Human Rights Annual Report 2006, HC 269, para 24 Back

32   Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Human Rights Annual Report 2007, Cm 7340, March 2008, pp 18-19 Back

33   Ev 5 Back

34   Q 5 Back

35   Foreign Affairs Committee, Third Report of Session 2006-07, Human Rights Annual Report 2006, HC 269, para 25 Back

36   Ev 5 Back

37   Ev 103 Back

38   Foreign Affairs Committee, Third Report of Session 2006-07, Human Rights Annual Report 2006, HC 269, para 29 Back

39   Foreign Affairs Committee, Eighth Report of Session 2006-07, Global Security: The Middle East, HC 363, para 106 Back

40   Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Human Rights Annual Report 2007, Cm 7340, March 2008, p 17 Back

41   Foreign Affairs Committee, Third Report of Session 2006-07, Human Rights Annual Report 2006, HC 269, para 34 Back

42   Q 53 Back

43   Q 7 Back

44   "UK ready to scrap killer cluster bombs", The Guardian, 28 May 2008 Back

45   "Cluster bomb ban treaty approved", BBC News Online, 28 May 2008, Back

46   HC Deb, 4 June 2008, col 769 Back

47   Ev 68 Back

48   Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Human Rights Annual Report 2007, Cm 7340, March 2008, p 17 Back

49   "Cluster bomb ban treaty approved", BBC News Online, 28 May 2008, Back

50   HC Deb, 4 June 2008, col 769 Back

51   Q 7 Back

52   Amnesty International, "Cluster Munitions Treaty Agreed in Dublin", 30 May 2008, Back

53   Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Human Rights Annual Report 2007, Cm 7340, March 2008, p 22 Back

54   Ev 7 Back

55   Q 14 Back

56   Q 13 Back

57   Q 14 Back

58   Ev 67 Back

59   Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Human Rights Annual Report 2007, Cm 7340, March 2008, pp 56-58 Back

60   HC Deb, 18 March 2008, col 1036W Back

61   International Criminal Court, "The State Parties to the Rome Statute", Back

62   International Criminal Court, Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, 17 July 1998, article 13(b), p 11 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 2008
Prepared 20 July 2008