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

3  "Countries of concern"

The size of the list

32.  The number of "countries of concern" identified by the FCO has increased from 26 in the 2010 report to 28 in the 2011 report. The new additions are Fiji and South Sudan: Fiji is included because of restrictions on the right of assembly and on freedom of expression, the minimal progress towards implementation of the recommendations accepted following the 2010 UN Universal Periodic Review of human rights in Fiji, the failure to make significant headway in meeting commitments agreed with the EU, and the very limited progress towards constitutional dialogue or democratic elections.[61] South Sudan, which gained independence on 9 July 2011, has inherited instability and an underdeveloped framework for the protection of human rights.

33.  Identifying a country as being "of concern" sends a signal to the country concerned and to non-governmental organisations in the human rights field that the Government regards failings in human rights standards as grave enough to warrant a prominent statement of disapproval. There is also a link between designation and FCO funding: Dr Vijay Rangarajan, Director of Multilateral Policy at the FCO, told us that countries of concern received the £5 million available in dedicated human rights funding, so that when a country was added to the list, it became eligible and the FCO focused resources upon it.[62] If the steady increase in the number of countries of concern were to continue, therefore, and the link with eligibility for funding from the human rights and democracy programme were to remain in place, the programme would come under increasing pressure and the amounts available for each "country of concern" could diminish. We note that other funding streams are available for human rights work.

34.  Jeremy Browne MP, the then FCO Minister with responsibility for human rights, told us that, over time, "we should be looking, where we can, to take countries off the list" and that "it would be depressing if we felt that no country of concern ever improved enough to be removed from the country of concern list".[63] Yet it is proving rather harder to drop countries than to add them: as we noted last year, only Indonesia and Nepal have ever been removed.[64] We can see the difficulty for the FCO, in that the binary nature of the system—a country is either 'of concern' or not 'of concern'—makes it difficult to reward steady improvement other than by removing a country from the list entirely, which signals that the FCO no longer has significant reservations, when in practice the situation is likely to be rather muddier.

35.   The FCO has gone some way towards removing the inflexibility of annual designation by publishing online quarterly updates on the FCO website, which allow it to react more quickly to developments (good or bad) and, conceivably, to move countries on or off the list mid-year. The FCO has also included in the 2011 report, for the first time, "case studies" of countries where conditions are not thought to be so serious as to merit the "country of concern" designation but where the FCO nonetheless judges that close analysis and reporting are required. The four case studies in the 2011 Report are Egypt, Bahrain, Ethiopia and Rwanda.

36.  As we noted last year, the choice of "countries of concern" generates controversy, normally about omissions rather than inclusions. This year, Human Rights Watch challenged the omission of all four of the countries identified as "case studies", noting serious human rights concerns in each one.[65] REDRESS argued that Nepal should have been included, both because of continuing violations of human rights and because of "consistent impunity for violations committed during the country's 10-year conflict".[66] The Church of England Mission and Public Affairs Council questioned the omission of Nigeria, where it noted attacks and killings of Christians and a growing threat of Islamist militancy. It also regretted that the report did not cover every country in depth, unlike the equivalent report published by the US State Department.[67] Others disagreed on this point: Mr Croft, representing Amnesty International, argued that it would be "ridiculous" to try to emulate the American example, and he thought it better that the UK should retain a strong focus on countries where there were "real issues of concern".[68]

Criteria for inclusion

37.  In our report on the FCO's human rights work in 2010-11, we asked the FCO to explain more clearly the criteria adopted and the decision-making process employed in arriving at the annual selection of 'countries of concern'. In reply, the FCO said that "countries of concern" were selected by the Foreign Secretary at the end of each calendar year, and that the selection was based on "a range of internal and external human rights reporting, and after consultation with the FCO's ambassadors and high commissioners". The FCO added that it was "difficult to set out the criteria for selection in much greater detail … because of the sensitive nature of much of the material used in the assessment process", but it agreed to try to report on the process as clearly as possible in future.[69] In this year's report, the FCO said that embassies, high commissions and FCO country desks were consulted, and that "along with a country's overall human rights performance during 2011, we considered whether the UK had been particularly active on human rights issues in each country and whether its inclusion in the report might be beneficial in stimulating debate and potential change".[70]

38.  In evidence to this year's inquiry, Human Rights Watch described the rationale for selection as "vague and unconvincing", and it suggested that a strong criterion would be whether the UK had real influence with the country concerned, as a result of aid, trade, security or close diplomatic ties. Mr Mepham gave Ethiopia as an example, pointing out that the UK gave the country more than £300 million each year in development aid and had a substantial staff presence in the country. He reasoned that the UK had potentially "huge amounts of leverage" in Ethiopia and he questioned why the capacity to influence was not regarded by the FCO as a criterion.[71] We question however whether using the measure of the UK's leverage and influence within a country would not in fact distort a decision which should be based on hard facts only.


39.  The case of Bahrain illustrates many of our misgivings about the system for designating "countries of concern". In our report last year on the FCO's human rights work, we criticised the FCO for not designating Bahrain as a "country of concern" in its 2010 report, published in April 2011. Our criticism was made in the light of the brutal repression by the authorities of demonstrations against the regime in February and March 2011, in which at least 35 people are known to have died and some 2,000 people were arrested. Military courts were used to try civilians, and medical staff who treated the injured were brought to trial and sentenced to long periods of imprisonment.[72] In July 2011, the King of Bahrain established the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) to examine allegations of human rights abuses during the unrest. The Commission, which published a substantial and respected report in November, found evidence of torture and of physical and psychological abuse of detainees. It recommended, amongst other things, that:

  • An independent and impartial national commission should follow up and implement the recommendations of the BICI;
  • The National Security Authority should become an intelligence-gathering agency without powers of law enforcement or arrest;
  • There should be a requirement upon the Attorney-General to investigate claims of torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and independent forensic experts should be used in such investigations; and
  • All convictions and sentences by the National Security Courts where fundamental principles of a fair trial had not been respected should be subject to review in civilian courts.[73]

40.  The FCO claimed in its 2011 human rights report that steps had been taken to implement reforms based on the Independent Commission of Inquiry's recommendations,[74] but witnesses to our inquiry believed that there was little evidence of this. They did not accept that the national commission which is to oversee the implementation of the BICI's recommendations was independent, as members had been selected by the King; there was little or no sign that the national Human Rights Commission announced by the authorities in Bahrain had begun work; and there was limited confidence in the standards of the civilian courts, to which many cases had been transferred.[75] Human Rights Watch described the case study on Bahrain in the FCO's 2011 Report as "very weak" and told us that the FCO continued to "talk up" progress when in fact there had been none.[76] In recent months, the FCO itself has shown signs of frustration: in July, Lord Howell described progress over the previous four months as having been "frankly, minimal" and he acknowledged that the government in Bahrain had to "go further and implement meaningful political reforms".[77]

Conclusions on "countries of concern"

41.  The practice of designating countries of concern can appear inconsistent and restrictive. Distinctions become fine: Saudi Arabia is a "country of concern", despite the FCO's view that there have been "incremental improvements" in human rights (which we observe would be from a very low base) and a "proportionate" policing response to protests;[78] yet Bahrain, where significant numbers died in 2011 and where there was found to be widespread use of torture on those detained after the demonstrations, is not. The designation is restrictive in that it becomes hard for the FCO to remove a country from the list: conditions might improve in some respects (as in Colombia and Cuba) but not sufficiently for the FCO to feel able to defend a decision to remove them from the list.

42.  Despite these drawbacks, however, the designation of "countries of concern" serves a useful purpose. It states in a very public fashion that the UK believes that human rights standards in those countries fall well short of what is deemed acceptable internationally. We recommend that, despite the difficulties inherent in the concept, the FCO should continue to designate "countries of concern".

43.  The process becomes devalued, however, if political and strategic factors are allowed to colour decisions, as we believe has happened with regard to Bahrain. Mr Croft, representing Amnesty International, spoke of "other considerations" that came into play in Bahrain and indeed other countries, which served as a disincentive to listing them as countries of concern.[79] Mr Mepham agreed, noting "the whole geopolitics of the region", which made the FCO "more inhibited about saying what they ought to say".[80] We believe that Bahrain should have been designated as a country of concern in the FCO's 2011 report on human rights and democracy. PLATFORM argued that similar considerations, this time related to strategic energy considerations, had made the UK reluctant to criticise what PLATFORM saw as the excessive use of force by the Nigerian government.[81]

44.  Even if countries are designated as being "of concern", the approach taken by the FCO in the relevant country-specific sections of the human rights report sometimes appears low-key. The section on Saudi Arabia, for instance, cites a recent report by Amnesty International which lists multiple examples of alleged torture of detainees,[82] but the FCO observes that allegations of the use of torture are "common" but "difficult to verify", and it states merely that it will "seek to verify such allegations".[83]

45.  It is inevitable that the UK will have interests which have the potential to conflict with its human rights values: these interests might, for instance, be strategic, commercial or security-related. In pursuing these alongside its human rights work overseas, the UK runs the risk of operating double standards, and our view is that it would be in the Government's interest for it to be more transparent in this respect and for Ministers to be bolder in acknowledging that there will be contradictions. Rather than trying to assert that the two can co-exist freely, part of the Government's role should be publicly to set out and explain its judgments on how far to balance them in particular cases, having taken into account the need to adapt policy according to local circumstances and developments.

46.  We recommend that the FCO revise its criteria for designating "countries of concern". Decisions on designation, if they are to have maximum credibility, should be based purely upon assessments of human rights standards and should stand up to objective comparison. External factors, such as strategic considerations or the UK's ability to influence developments, should not be allowed to colour those decisions, although they might usefully guide decisions on where to concentrate funding for human rights programmes. If, despite our recommendations, the FCO chooses to continue to use existing criteria, we recommend that the Department uses more flexibility in allocating funds from human rights programme budgets to countries which are not "countries of concern" and where human rights failings are less severe, but where the chances of a lasting beneficial impact are reasonably high.

61   Human Rights and Democracy: The 2011 FCO Report, pages 242-3 Back

62   Q 75 Back

63   Q 74 Back

64   Eighth Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, Session 2010-12, HC 964, paragraph 50 Back

65   Q 2 Back

66   Para 29, Ev 88 Back

67   Paras 18 and 19, Ev 61. The State Department's 2011 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices provided detailed commentary on human rights in almost 200 countries: see Back

68   Q 10 Back

69   Government response to the Eighth Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, Session 2010-12, Cm 8169, para 39 Back

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

71   Q 11 Back

72   Human Rights Watch has reported that charges included calling for a change of government, leading "illegal" demonstrations, "spreading false news" and "harming the reputation of the country". See Back

73 Back

74   Human Rights and Democracy: the FCO 2011 Report, page 18 Back

75   Qq 13 and 14 Back

76   Para 17, Ev 74 Back

77   HL Deb 13 July 2012, col 1348 Back

78   Human Rights and Democracy: The 2011 FCO Report, page 306 Back

79   Q 11 Back

80   Q 13 Back

81   Ev 82 Back

82   Saudi Arabia: Repression in the name of security, Amnesty International, December 2011 Back

83   Human Rights and Democracy: The 2011 FCO Report, page 311 Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2012
Prepared 17 October 2012