Human Rights Annual Report 2008 - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

1  Introduction

Our inquiry

1.  Since 1998 the Government has produced regular, usually annual, reports on human rights, and the Foreign Affairs Committee has subsequently published its comments on these. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) published its Annual Report on Human Rights 2008 in March 2009.[1]

2.  In conducting our annual inquiry into human rights, based on the FCO's report, we have this year adopted a slightly different approach to that of previous years. In addition to reviewing the matters dealt with in the FCO's report, which broadly relate to the work of the FCO in relation to promoting human rights in other countries, we decided to consider a number of further issues, which might be summarised under the heading of the responsibilities of the FCO for securing the human rights of British citizens and others overseas.

3.  When we announced the launch of our inquiry on 2 April 2009, we stated that these issues would include:

  • The case of Binyam Mohamed
  • Allegations of UK complicity in torture
  • Extraordinary rendition (including the possible role of Diego Garcia)
  • Transfer of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan
  • Allegations of abuse at the British Embassy in Iraq
  • The oversight of contractors, including private security companies, employed by the FCO and UK Posts overseas

4.  In the event, our inquiry has been limited in its scope by the House of Commons sub judice resolution which states that "cases in which proceedings are active in United Kingdom Courts shall not be referred to in any motion, debate or question".[2] This is a self-denying ordinance designed to prevent things said in, or published by, the House from intruding upon the fair and proper conduct of cases in the law courts. We took advice from the House of Commons authorities on individual cases that should not be discussed as a result. These included the case of Binyam Mohamed, on which we therefore do not comment in this Report. As a result of sub judice concerns, one of our oral evidence sessions (at which we heard evidence from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Reprieve) was held in private, on 10 June 2009. We expressed our intention to put subsequently as much as possible of the transcript of that session in the public domain, but reserved the right to sideline parts of it to comply with the terms of the sub judice resolution.[3] A sidelined version of that transcript is accordingly published with this Report, as are sidelined versions of some of the written evidence we received. We hope that in future, at the conclusion of the legal cases in question, it may be possible to publish full versions of all the oral and written evidence we have taken.

5.  In addition to this oral evidence heard in private, we also took evidence in public from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, also on 10 June. We then took evidence in public from the Foreign Secretary, on 16 June. We are grateful to all those who submitted written and oral evidence to us.

6.  As a consequence of our decision to deal in this Report with the additional matters we have referred to above, our discussion of the contents of the FCO's report is not as full as it has been in previous years.

The FCO report: key human rights themes

7.  In previous years we have made suggestions as to how the FCO could improve the format of its Annual Report on Human Rights. We believe that the structure of the 2008 Report strikes a good balance between, on the one hand, addressing major countries of concern, and, on the other, discussing thematic issues. We recommended last year that the key issues of women's rights, children's rights, and the promotion of democracy should be given greater prominence in the next edition of the FCO report.[4] We are pleased that the FCO has accepted this recommendation. We consider below two further issues which we believe would benefit from receiving thematic treatment in future editions of the FCO report.

8.  The right of freedom of association, including the right to belong to a free trade union, is of great importance, yet is under threat—or in some cases does not exist at all—in a number of countries. In our Report we make specific comments on this subject in relation to China/Tibet, Colombia, Sudan and Zimbabwe. We note, for instance, that Colombia is reputed to be one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a trade unionist.[5] The enforcement of International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions, setting out minimum standards in relation to freedom of association and collective bargaining, discrimination, forced labour, and child labour, is also a matter of great concern. The FCO's report refers to limitations on freedom of association in a number of specific countries, but does not set out what action the FCO is taking.

9.  Another important topic which receives scant attention in the FCO's report is that of progress towards full implementation of the Harare Declaration. The Declaration, agreed to by Commonwealth countries in 1991, contained a commitment to respect fundamental human rights. The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group monitors the extent to which individual Commonwealth countries have upheld the values of the Declaration, and recommends measures for collective action in cases where countries are deemed seriously or persistently to have infringed the Harare principles. Recent cases where countries have been suspended from the Commonwealth for such infringements have been those of Fiji (suspended in December 2006) and Pakistan (suspended in November 2007, re-admitted in May 2008).[6] The FCO's report contains a short passage dealing with the Harare Declaration, but in our view a more detailed analysis, setting out what action the FCO is taking to secure Commonwealth members' adherence to the Harare principles on a country-by-country basis, would be valuable.

10.  We conclude that the FCO's inclusion in its report of extensive sections on what steps it is taking to promote equality and democracy, including women's and children's rights, is welcome. We recommend that next year's report includes what the FCO is doing both to extend the right of freedom of association, and to achieve progress amongst Commonwealth countries in implementing the human rights provisions of the Harare Declaration.

1   Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Annual Report on Human Rights 2008, Cm 7557, March 2009 Back

2   Standing Orders of the House of Commons, Public Business, 2009,Appendix 1 (page 165),  Back

3   Q1 Back

4   Foreign Affairs Committee, Ninth Report of Session 2007-08, Human Rights Annual Report 2007, HC 533, para 12 Back

5   See para 198 below. Back

6   Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Annual Report on Human Rights 2008, Cm 7557, March 2009, pp 58-59 Back

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