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.
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.
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".
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. We
can see the difficulty for the FCO, in that the binary nature
of the systema 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
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.
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
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.
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".
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
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.
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".
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.
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.
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
- 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.
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,
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.
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. 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".
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;
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.
Mr Mepham agreed, noting "the whole geopolitics of the region",
which made the FCO "more inhibited about saying what they
ought to say".
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
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,
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".
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
Q 75 Back
Q 74 Back
Eighth Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, Session 2010-12,
HC 964, paragraph 50 Back
Q 2 Back
Para 29, Ev 88 Back
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 http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/hrrpt/humanrightsreport/index.htm#wrapper Back
Q 10 Back
Government response to the Eighth Report from the Foreign Affairs
Committee, Session 2010-12, Cm 8169, para 39 Back
Human Rights and Democracy: The 2011 FCO Report, page 159 Back
Q 11 Back
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 http://www.hrw.org/world-report-2012/world-report-2012-bahrain Back
Human Rights and Democracy: the FCO 2011 Report, page 18 Back
Qq 13 and 14 Back
Para 17, Ev 74 Back
HL Deb 13 July 2012, col 1348 Back
Human Rights and Democracy: The 2011 FCO Report, page 306 Back
Q 11 Back
Q 13 Back
Ev 82 Back
Saudi Arabia: Repression in the name of security, Amnesty International,
December 2011 Back
Human Rights and Democracy: The 2011 FCO Report, page 311 Back