The FCO's human rights work in 2011 - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

2  The FCO's 2011 Human Rights and Democracy Report

Format and content

4.  The format of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's 2011 Human Rights and Democracy report is similar to that of previous years, consisting of a thematic update on the Department's work and strategies, followed by a detailed survey of developments in countries about which the FCO has wide-ranging human rights concerns and which it terms 'countries of concern'.[2] The report opens, however, with a section on the Arab Spring, setting out the UK's response to events both during and since the uprisings and the human rights implications of those events. The prominence given in the report to the Arab Spring is welcome and addresses our recommendation last year that the FCO should dedicate a section of its 2011 human rights report to reporting in detail on the human rights work which it is undertaking in the Middle East and North Africa region.[3] However, the value of this section would have been greater still had the FCO taken the opportunity to analyse its past policy on human rights in the region and to identify lessons that could be learnt.

5.  We welcome the FCO's decision to include in the Report a statement of its human rights priorities: this statement, likewise, responds to a recommendation by the Committee in its report last year.[4]

6.   The FCO's report continues to increase in size, partly because of an increase in the number of countries designated as being "of concern". For those who commented on the format of the FCO's report in their written submissions to our inquiry, this was a positive change. The Church of England's Mission and Public Affairs Council described the FCO's report as "authoritative" and as "more comprehensive than in previous years".[5] Amnesty International agreed and described some of the country-specific sections as "probably the best" for several years.[6] Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch valued the FCO's decision to continue publishing the report in hard copy format as well as online.[7] We congratulate the FCO's Human Rights Department on the considerable effort which has gone into the 2011 Human Rights and Democracy Report. We strongly welcome the FCO's decision to continue publication of the report in printed form.


7.  One aspect of the report which seems to us to be comparatively weak is the absence of any systematic evaluation of the Department's human rights policies and initiatives. Amnesty International told us that, while there was "ample detail" on outputs in the report, insufficient attention was paid to outcomes.[8] Mr David Mepham, representing Human Rights Watch, also pointed out that the report was "a bit of a list of activities rather than benchmarks against change objectives for which [the FCO] can be held accountable".[9] We appreciate the difficulty of measuring cause and effect in an environment where so many other factors outside the FCO's control come into play; but we believe that the value of the FCO's annual report on human rights and democracy would be enhanced considerably if it were to provide some form of assessment of the FCO's work. We recommend that the FCO, in next year's report, experiment with accountability measures for some of its human rights programmes, for instance by setting benchmarks, targets and indicators.

Main events of 2011


8.  Besides responding to the "Arab Spring" and assessing the implications for the Department's human rights policy, the FCO has been active in publishing new and updated guidance and strategies. For instance, the Department's Strategy for Abolition of the Death Penalty was updated in October 2011; a Strategy for the Prevention of Torture 2011-15 was similarly published in October 2011 (we return to this Strategy in Section 4 of this Report); guidance for FCO staff on reporting information or concerns about torture was updated and reissued in March 2011; and guidance for UK Government staff on assessing human rights implications of the UK's security and justice work overseas was published in December. A business and human rights strategy is in preparation, to guide businesses on the Government's expectations of their behaviour overseas (we cover this in Section 6 of the Report).


9.  The FCO describes 2011 as having been "an unprecedented year for action to promote and protect human rights at the UN Human Rights Council and UN General Assembly", [10] and its account of progress in achieving the UK's aims within the Council is noticeably more upbeat than in previous years. Clear signals have been sent on the standards expected of Human Rights Council members: Libya, when still led by Colonel Gaddafi, was suspended from the Council by the UN General Assembly in March 2011; and Syria withdrew its candidacy for the Council in May, following a Special Session at which a resolution criticising the Syrian Government's actions was adopted.[11] A subsequent Special Session in December 2011 led to a resolution on Syria which the FCO saw as "one of the toughest ever passed by the Council": this gave strong support to the work of the Arab League and created a new post of Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Syria.[12] As we noted in our report last year on the FCO's human rights work, the UK remained a member of the UN Human Rights Council until June 2011, having served the maximum permitted two consecutive terms, and it plans to seek membership once again in 2013.[13]


10.  In November last year, the UK assumed the Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers at the Council of Europe. In a speech at the official handover ceremony in Strasbourg on 7 November, the Secretary of State said that "we will make the promotion and protection of human rights the overarching theme of our Chairmanship" and he listed his priorities for the six-month term. These were:

  • Reform of the European Court of Human Rights;
  • Internal reform in the Council of Europe;
  • A more effective and efficient role for the Council of Europe in supporting local and regional democracy;
  • Support for strengthening the rule of law in Council of Europe member states;
  • Promotion of an open internet, not only on access and content but also on freedom of expression;
  • Combating discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity across Europe.[14]

11.  Mr Mepham noted that the UK's chairmanship had been dominated by the initiative for reform of the European Court of Human Rights, [15] which had led to agreement on what the Secretary of State for Justice termed "a substantial package of reform" at talks held in Brighton in April 2012.[16] The reforms set out in the final Declaration included commitments to:

  • Amend the Convention to include the principles of subsidiarity and the margin of appreciation
  • Amend the Convention to tighten the admissibility criteria so that trivial cases can be thrown out and the focus of the Court can be serious abuses
  • Reduce the time limit for claims from six months to four
  • Improve the selection process for judges.[17]

We did not examine this reform package during the inquiry, but we note the important work of both the Court and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in holding Council of Europe member states to account for human rights failings.


12.  Talks on EU accession to the European Convention on Human Rights began in July 2010. The FCO's 2010 Human Rights Report pointed out that successful completion of negotiations would meet a commitment in the Treaty of Lisbon and said that "this process will ensure that the institutions of the EU are covered by the same human rights standards under the Convention as all Council of Europe member states".[18] As a result, the EU would be able to defend itself before the European Court of Human Rights against alleged breaches of the Convention and could be held to account for any violations upheld.[19] Amnesty told us that EU accession to the Convention "could and should improve protection of fundamental rights for individuals in Europe, by ensuring that individuals can directly challenge the human rights consequences of EU law and the actions of EU institutions".[20]

13.  The FCO's 2011 Human Rights Report says very little on the issue, noting merely that EU accession "remains on the table" and that "the UK will keep working to make sure that the terms of accession are right".[21] However, we are aware that the UK's approach is not seen universally as a positive one. The European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, in a report on the EU's human rights policy published on 30 March 2012, raised the question of EU accession to the Convention and said that it "deplores the obstructionist attitude of some Member States, notably France and the United Kingdom".[22] We invited the FCO to confirm that the Government was still in favour of EU accession. It gave a slightly oblique reply, saying that the UK remained committed to fulfilling the obligation under the Treaty of Lisbon and that it was "playing a full and constructive part" in negotiations.[23] It summarised the various complexities (also noted by the then Secretary of State for Justice in evidence to the European Scrutiny Committee and to a House of Lords Committee last September)[24] and stressed the importance of getting the terms of accession and the accompanying EU internal rules correct from the outset, as they would be "extremely difficult to amend".[25] We support the approach being taken by the Government in negotiations on EU accession to the European Convention on Human Rights. We will continue to monitor developments, while noting that the Ministry of Justice is taking the lead in negotiations.

Thematic issues


14.  In March 2011, the Government launched a cross-departmental action plan to tackle violence against women and girls.[26] Although the plan is chiefly for implementation within the UK, it includes a role for the FCO, alongside the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development, in tackling violence against women and girls in conflict and post-conflict countries through the implementation of the UK National Action Plan on UN Security Council Resolution 1325, on women, peace and security. A Written Ministerial Statement was made to Parliament in October 2011 on the annual review of progress under the National Action Plan, and a revised Plan was published in February 2012.[27]

15.  We note fears that, although the FCO states that gender equality and women's empowerment is a priority,[28] its commitment to women's human rights might take second place to the desire for stability in conflict-affected areas, and hard-won gains in women's human rights might be "traded away" in deals to achieve reconciliation, for instance with the Taliban.[29] We also note suggestions that the Government's Ministerial Champion for Tackling Violence against Women and Girls was constrained by a lack of budget and authority within government.[30] The Home Office (as the Department within which the Ministerial Champion was located until September 2012) has allocated £28 million over four years for specialist services to address violence against women and girls.[31]

16.  The poor state of women's rights in certain countries continues to give serious cause for concern. The FCO concludes that despite commitments by the Afghan government to promote and protect women's rights, implementation of those commitments is weak.[32] Allegations of repression by Taliban groups, including attacks on women, 'honour killings' and acts designed to deny education to girls persist,[33] and prospects for women and girls' rights following the withdrawal of the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) by 2014 are uncertain, to say the least. We ask the FCO to indicate what steps it is taking to safeguard the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan from 2014.

17.  The FCO's human rights report also records evidence that women in Iraq continue to suffer significant human rights abuses, including "unacceptably high" numbers of 'honour killings'; and it notes claims by Human Rights Watch that women's rights have suffered from "a rise in tribal customs and religiously influenced political extremism".[34] In a positive development, the Kurdistan Regional Government has passed a law outlawing domestic violence, including female genital mutilation. We note that an FCO-funded project may have helped to pave the way for this legislation, and we request that the FCO inform the Committee what steps it is taking to encourage the Iraqi government to ban female genital mutilation across Iraq and to have this practice banned world-wide.

18.  We ask the FCO to indicate what steps it is taking to safeguard the rights of women and girls in Pakistan and world-wide.


19.  The UK was criticised in evidence for the delay in signing the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, despite its claims to have played an "active part" in its negotiation.[35] The same issue arose last year, and the Government, in its response to our previous report on the FCO's human rights work, while it maintained that it "broadly" supported the Convention, said that it had difficulties (not specified) with certain articles which would require changes in policy and/or legislative reform. It said that it had written to Government departments to ask for information on the implications of signing the Convention, and it hoped to be in a position to announce a final decision by the end of 2011.[36] Little progress seemed to have been made by April 2012, when the FCO published its 2011 Human Rights and Democracy report, in which it reiterated that it was "generally supportive" of the principles underpinning the Convention but that areas had been identified that needed further consideration before a final decisions could be made on whether to sign the Convention.[37] Once again, it said nothing about what those areas might be.

20.  In its submission to our inquiry in May 2012, Human Rights Watch said that the Government appeared to have "gone backwards" on the issue, and it argued that the UK's credibility was being undermined by its failure to sign.[38] Shortly afterwards, however, on 8 June 2012, the Government finally announced that the UK had indeed signed the Convention.[39] We commend the Government for signing the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, although we are concerned that the delay in signature—and the failure to explain publicly the reasons for the delay—may have damaged perceptions of the UK's commitment to women's human rights.


21.  We noted in our report last year on the FCO's human rights work a sense among children's rights organisations that the FCO was according a lower priority than in the past to children's human rights. That sense persists: written submissions to this year's inquiry from UNICEF, BOND Child Rights Group,[40] and a group of organisations principally concerned with improving the lives of children affected by armed conflict[41] all argued in favour of placing children more centrally in the FCO's activities and in the Human Rights Report itself. Some believed strongly that the FCO was "deprioritising" children's rights:

Despite the inclusion of the additional section relating to safeguarding children, the overall discussion of child rights in the 2011 Report is limited, comprising only four sub-sections. This shows that children's rights are not a serious consideration or concern for the FCO, and certainly not a priority.[42]

A number of suggestions were made for enhancing the profile of children's rights within the FCO, including:

  • The inclusion in next year's report of details of activities to support child victims of armed conflict;
  • Ensuring that the Ministerial Champion for Tackling Violence against Women and Girls has the resources to promote effective initiatives;
  • The inclusion of a member on the Secretary of State's Advisory Group who has expertise in child rights; and
  • Production of a new child rights strategy.[43]

22.  Some of these proposals were aired last year, and the FCO acknowledged in its response to our report last year that it had no plans to draw up a new child rights strategy, although it said that "our embassies and high commissions do pursue work on child rights where this is of particular local concern". It also said that members of the Secretary of State's Advisory Group on Human Rights[44] had been identified "because of their ability to contribute across the range of human rights issues", and it told us that "while there is no representative from a child rights-specific organisation, many if not all of the Group's members are familiar with child rights issues".[45]

23.  We asked the Minister what the FCO was doing to address the impression among children's rights organisations that the FCO had set a lower priority for children's rights in its work. In reply, he said that he had "never heard that accusation made".[46] Given that the matter was raised by the Committee last year,[47] we find this difficult to accept. While we question whether the FCO has in fact downgraded children's rights within its work, we recommend that the FCO undertake urgent work to address negative perceptions among voluntary sector groups of its commitment to children's human rights abroad.

FCO policy development and staffing


24.  As we noted in our report last year on the FCO's human rights work in 2010-11, the Secretary of State has established an Advisory Group on Human Rights. When announcing the formation of the advisory group in November 2010, he said that it "will ensure that I have the best possible information about the human rights situation in different countries, and can benefit from outside advice on the conduct of our policy".[48] The Group meets twice a year and is chaired by the Secretary of State. Three sub-groups have been formed, on the death penalty, torture, and freedom of expression on the internet respectively; these have been chaired by Jeremy Browne MP, as the then FCO Minister with responsibility for human rights.

25.  We asked witnesses from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch—both of them organisations which are represented on the Advisory Group—for an assessment of the Group's work so far. David Mepham, UK Director of Human Rights Watch, told us that meetings lasted for two hours and that Group members "have an opportunity to raise issues of concern, to raise questions and to make points to the Foreign Secretary", and he believed that the Foreign Secretary had been genuinely interested and engaged. However, while he saw it as "very nice to have two hours to make your case to the Foreign Secretary", he told us that he was not clear whether the Group was there to voice its concerns or to act as a sounding board, or to serve as a forum for new ideas.[49] He also described proceedings as "a fairly wide-ranging 'whatever we want to put on the table, we can put on the table' discussion".[50]

26.  We asked both Mr Mepham and Mr Croft (representing Amnesty International) for examples of a clear impact of the Advisory Group's work on FCO policy. Mr Mepham suggested that the inclusion of case studies in the 2011 FCO Report might have resulted from collective pressure at Group meetings; and Mr Croft believed that the FCO's policy on freedom of religion and belief had been strengthened because of dialogue within the Advisory Group on the impact of religious views on women and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities.[51] Mr Croft also believed that holding the discussions in the presence of the Secretary of State had probably enhanced the status of human rights strategies within the FCO.[52]

27.  Clearly there is value in treating the meetings of the Advisory Group as a chance for members to air their concerns, and it displays a welcome openness on the part of the Foreign Secretary. However, a more constructive approach might be to devote more time to inviting comment on specific policy areas or—even better—FCO draft policy documents, so that Group members have a chance to offer genuine advice and to influence policy development directly. Some work of this nature already occurs at sub-group level: the work of the Sub-group on Torture Prevention on the draft torture prevention strategy is a good example.[53] We recommend that the Secretary of State's Advisory Group adopt a more consultative format for its meetings and that specific draft policy proposals be put regularly to the Group for comment and advice.


28.  The Committee has conducted a long discussion with the FCO over the years about the numbers of full-time human rights staff employed at overseas posts. The FCO, while saying that human rights is a top priority for all policy staff at all locations, has maintained that "for operational and security reasons we cannot give further details of staff deployments and activity levels".[54] When questioned during a debate in Westminster Hall about why the FCO was reluctant to release these figures, when the Ministry of Defence had supplied lists of defence attachés in overseas posts, broken down by rank, the Minister replied that:

"the matter of the defence attachés is different because it involves a different department. Our caution is not designed to obscure a commitment to human rights. Our commitment is demonstrated by the work that we do and the fact that everybody is imbued with this sense of commitment, as opposed to numbers".[55]

29.  However, in a letter to the Committee Chairman on 25 January 2012, the Secretary of State said that he had asked the Department "to do further work on estimating the scale of resource devoted to human rights work across the network".[56] The fruits of that work appeared in the FCO's 2011 Human Rights and Democracy report, which said that:

The amount of staff resource devoted varies over time because these responsibilities are carried out at different levels of seniority, in response to developments. For individual staff this work is normally one part of a broader role. We estimate that we have approximately 240 full-time employees equivalent (FTEs) working on human rights across the network, both in the UK and overseas. This includes 25 permanent staff, plus one contracted Human Rights Adviser within the Human Rights and Democracy Department in London".[57]

To place these figures in context, we observe that the total number of FCO whole-time equivalent staff during 2011-12 averaged 13,694, of which 4,530 were UK-based, 8,685 were locally engaged, and 479 were non-permanent staff.[58]

30.  We invited Mr Browne, as the Minister then responsible for human rights, to tell us how many embassies or High Commissions had a UK-based officer working full-time on human rights. Mr Browne could not supply a precise answer, although he noted that there were "a few in countries that are of particularly grave concern and where we have big embassies", such as China. When pressed, he pointed out that human rights would be an element in the work of many Embassy staff, for instance those working on commercial or environmental matters, and that it would be a "bizarre" form of measurement which excluded (for instance) an ambassador who spent 95% of his time on human rights. Mr Browne stressed that the FCO had already gone to considerable effort to provide figures for full-time equivalents.[59]

31.  While we were grateful for the effort which had been made, and while we accepted the various provisos which would attach to any figure, we continued to have difficulty in understanding why the FCO could not supply, as a matter of fact, a number for staff working full-time on human rights, however small. Eventually, having been pressed further during oral evidence, the FCO did offer a figure in subsequent correspondence:

A survey of our posts covering multilateral work with international organisations, our twenty-eight countries of concern and four case study countries shows the number [of staff working full-time on human rights] for these countries is 14. This is made up of eight UK-based staff and six locally-engaged staff.

The FCO reiterated that there were many posts where there were staff for whom human rights was a "key priority" and for whom human rights work took up the majority but not all of their time, and it observed once again that "taking the full-time figures in isolation does not therefore represent an accurate reflection of the importance we attach to human rights work across our overseas network".[60] We accept this explanation and are grateful for the information provided. However, we request that the FCO inform us what training on human rights and on relevant strategy documents is provided for FCO staff during their careers, how the FCO's human rights objectives are reflected in staff job descriptions, and how individual performance in pursuit of those objectives is evaluated.

2   Human Rights and Democracy: The 2011 FCO Report, page 159 Back

3   The FCO's Human Rights Work 2010-11, Eighth Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, HC 964, Session 2010-12, paragraph 170 Back

4   The FCO's Human Rights Work 2010-11, Eighth Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, HC 964, Session 2010-12, paragraph 42. See also written submission from the Church of England Mission and Public Affairs Council, Ev 60 Back

5   Ev 60, para 6 Back

6   Mr Croft Q2; Amnesty written submission, paragraph 4, Ev 35 Back

7   Qq 4 and 5 Back

8   Para 5, Ev 35 Back

9   Q 3. See also Human Rights Watch submission, para 5, Ev 71 Back

10   Human Rights and Democracy: The 2011 FCO Report, page 130 Back

11   See resolution of the Sixteenth Special Session of the Human Rights Council, 29 April 2011: Back

12   Human Rights and Democracy: The 2011 FCO Report, page 131 Back

13   Human Rights and Democracy: The 2011 FCO Report, page 134 Back

14   FCO press release 7 November 2011 Back

15   Q 67 Back

16 Back

17 Back

18   Human Rights and Democracy: The 2010 FCO Report, page 110 Back

19   FCO supplementary written evidence, Ev 108 Back

20   Amnesty written submission para 35, Ev 40 Back

21   Human Rights and Democracy: the 2011 FCO Report, page 152 Back

22   Report on the Annual Report on Human Rights in the World and the European Union's policy on the matter, Committee on Foreign Affairs, European Parliament A7-0086/2012 Back

23   Supplementary written evidence from the FCO, Ev 108 Back

24   Evidence given on 14 September 2011 by the Secretary of State for Justice to the House of Lords European Union Sub-Committee E, on Justice and Institutions: see Evidence given on 7 September 2011 by the Secretary of State for Justice to the House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee: see Back

25   Supplementary written evidence from the FCO, Ev 108 Back

26   Human Rights and Democracy: The 2011 FCO Report, page 62 Back

27   Human Rights and Democracy: The 2011 FCO Report, page 106 Back

28   Human Rights and Democracy: The 2011 FCO Report, page 62 Back

29   Amnesty International written submission paras 17 and 18, Ev 37 Back

30   Amnesty International para 19, Ev 37; see also submission from World Vision UK and others, Ev 104 Back

31 Back

32   Human Rights and Democracy: The 2011 FCO Report, page 168 Back

33   See for instance Daily Telegraph 26 June 2012, fghanistan.html; also Human Rights Watch, at Back

34   Human Rights and Democracy: The 2011 FCO Report, page 267 Back

35   Human Rights and Democracy: The 2011 FCO Report, page 152 Back

36   Government response to the Eighth Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee of Session 2010-12,Cm 8169 para 114 Back

37   Human Rights and Democracy: The 2011 FCO Report, page 64 Back

38   Human Rights Watch submission para 13, Ev 73 Back

39   FCO press release 8 June 2012 Back

40   A network of over 20 NGOs and research organisations concerned with child rights: see Ev 48 Back

41   World Vision UK, Save the Children UK, Child Soldiers International, and War Child UK Back

42   BOND Child Rights Group, para 4.8, Ev 49 Back

43   Ev 48 and 102 Back

44   See paragraph 24 below Back

45   Government response to the Eighth Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, Session 2010-12, Cm 8169, para 117 Back

46   Q 162 Back

47   The FCO's Human Rights Work 2010-11, Eighth Report from the Committee, Session 2010-12, paragraphs 142-3 Back

48   HC Deb 11 November 2010, col 23-24 WS Back

49   Q 6 Back

50   Q 9 Back

51   Q 7 Back

52   Q 6 Back

53   See Human Rights and Democracy 2011, page 49 Back

54   Correspondence between the FCO and the Rt Hon Ann Clwyd MP: see debate on human rights in Westminster Hall, 26 January 2012, col 170WH Back

55   HC Deb, 26 January 2012, col 188WH Back

56   Not published Back

57   Human Rights and Democracy: the 2011 FCO Report, page 27 Back

58   Foreign and Commonwealth Office Annual Report and Accounts 2011-12, HC 59, page 92. Figure excludes employees of Wilton Park and of "other designated bodies". Back

59   Qq 146 to 161 Back

60   Ev 107-8 Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2012
Prepared 17 October 2012