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

5 Applying public pressure

76.  As part of its "active and activist foreign policy", the FCO seeks to promote British values, including human rights, and to contribute to the welfare of developing countries and their citizens.[137] Much of that work will be carried out through specific projects, fostering the development of media freedom or of women's rights, for example; or it may occur through the quiet but steady exercise of influence at a personal level by staff at FCO missions overseas. Occasionally, the UK Government will judge that some sort of public pressure is the best means of indicating the UK's disapproval of a foreign state's human rights policy or standards. Economic sanctions and boycotts of international events are examples of such pressure.

Economic sanctions

77.  As the FCO notes in its 2011 Annual Report on human rights and democracy, multilateral sanctions are not intended to punish: rather, they are designed to coerce and constrain those they target with the aim of changing their behaviour, and to send a political signal.[138] Much academic effort has been expended on trying to determine whether economic sanctions are effective in achieving their aim. Even if the desired outcome appears to have occurred, establishing a causal link with the enforcement of sanctions is difficult.

78.  Furthermore, achieving watertight sanctions when there are multiple, competing trading interests can be almost impossible. When giving evidence to the Committee last year, Jeremy Browne MP (the then FCO Minister with responsibility for human rights) appeared to question the value of sanctions, noting that "that model is becoming harder to sustain—in fact, it may already be past its peak—when other countries in the world that do not, or do not appear to, or whose Governments do not, share those values supply the country that we have sanctions against". He concluded that "a bit of a rethink about the tools that we have at our disposal" was required.[139] The Foreign Secretary reiterated this view in a speech at the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 9 July 2012, when he said that "we have to adapt to the fact that some of our traditional diplomatic measures, including EU sanctions, will have a weaker impact as the EU's share of global GDP declines relative to the rest of the world".[140] However, despite the cautionary note sounded by the Foreign Secretary, we note that an FCO Minister felt able to state on 25 June that sanctions were "a key reason" why Iran had agreed to talks with the E3+3[141] on the use of nuclear material.[142] We also note the widespread belief that the effects of the sanctions regime on Libyan oil companies in 2011 contributed to the downfall of Colonel Gaddafi's regime.


79.  Recent events in Burma, which has long been subject to economic sanctions, provide a good case study. The EU's sanctions regime against Burma dates back to the mid-1990s, and concerns about the absence of progress towards democracy in Burma and at the continuing violation of human rights led the EU Council to adopt a Common Position in October 1996 which has provided the basis for subsequent measures. The sanctions regime has encompassed dealings with the Burmese timber, mining and precious minerals industries, visa restrictions for named individuals, an arms embargo, asset freezes on individuals and businesses, and the suspension of all but humanitarian aid.

80.  Burma has been one of the FCO's "countries of concern" since 2005, when the designation was first conceived; and it had been listed since 1999 in the FCO's annual Human Rights reports as a country posing a "challenge". However, after a long period of isolation from the West, a change of direction became evident in Burma during 2011. As the FCO noted in its annual report on its human rights work in 2011, the Burmese government opened up a process of dialogue with the most prominent opposition figure, Aung San Suu Kyi; media and internet restrictions were relaxed to some extent; laws permitting the establishment of independent trade unions were passed; and political prisoners were released. In response, the FCO has "moved to a new level of engagement" with the Burmese government, and the Foreign Secretary visited Burma in January this year—the first British Foreign Secretary to do so since 1955.[143]

81.  Evidence of reform prompted Western countries to review the sanctions regime in force. At the EU Foreign Affairs Council in Luxembourg on 23 April, which was attended by the Foreign Secretary, the Council decided to suspend all sanctions against Burma for twelve months, excepting the arms embargo and the supply of equipment that could be used for internal repression. The US had already lifted travel and certain financial restrictions; Canada suspended most sanctions on 24 April; and Australia lifted all remaining travel and financial sanctions on 7 June.[144]

82.  The Rt Hon David Lidington MP, as Minister for Europe, wrote to the Committee Chairman on 9 May with a summary of the discussion and conclusions of the EU Foreign Affairs Council on 23 April. He reported that "the Foreign Secretary stressed [to the Council] that sanctions had given the EU significant leverage"; and he also argued in a blog on the FCO website that EU sanctions had been "part of the mix of international pressure" which had led to the decision on the part of the Burmese government to initiate reforms.[145] However, the FCO's 2011 report on human rights steers clear of drawing any conclusions on the effectiveness of sanctions in Burma, and the reasons are understandable. The Burmese economy had been sustained by investment from China and Thailand and was on an upward rather than a downward trend, having grown by 5.5% from 2010 to 2011. At least one NGO has questioned whether sanctions had the opposite effect to that which was desired:

"The sanctions were counter-productive and reinforced suspicions against the West … It gave them a justification for maintaining power and perversely, it helped to maintain military rule … The generals have learnt to survive within the sanctions".[146]

83.  The EU's decision partially to suspend sanctions needed to be finely judged. Although there is clear evidence of a positive approach by the Burmese Government to reform in certain areas, serious infringements of human rights continue. The FCO's 2011 annual report on human rights cites reports of gender-based violence by the military, and censorship and denial of rights to ethnic minorities. There was serious conflict with ethnic armed forces in Kachin State in 2011, and by the end of the year, nearly 50,000 people had been internally displaced from the State.[147] Violence has also flared in Rakhine State in western Burma, where the Muslim Rohingya minority has been subjected to serious discrimination.[148] The Government has registered with the Burmese President and the Burmese Minister for Foreign Affairs its deep concern at the violence in Rakhine State.[149] We note that the Burmese Government announced in August that it would establish an independent Investigative Commission to examine the violence in Rakhine State.[150]

84.  There is also uncertainty about the extent to which political prisoners have been released. In a letter to the Committee Chair following a debate on human rights in Westminster Hall in January this year, Alistair Burt MP, as the FCO Minister responding to the debate, listed "the release of all political prisoners [in Burma] in time for the by-elections on 1 April" as one of the preconditions for supporting the lifting of EU sanctions. Yet, although the EU agreed in April to suspend sanctions, there is doubt about whether all political prisoners had in fact been released. Some 200 had been released in October 2011; but a newspaper report in May 2012 quoted the National League for Democracy[151] as suggesting that there remained "about 330" political prisoners, and the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (based in Thailand) cited a figure of "more than 900".[152] The Secretary of State told the House in May, during the Queen's Speech debate on foreign affairs, that there were still prisoners who the Burmese opposition argued were political prisoners. He added then that "we are now at the stage of definitions of what constitutes a political prisoner. We and the opposition in Burma may have a differing view from the Government there".[153] In June, he confirmed that he believed that there were still political prisoners in Burma;[154] and an FCO Minister reported that a further 25 political prisoners had been released in July this year.[155] It should be borne in mind that the release of a prisoner may be only temporary: Amnesty International warned that those released might be on long-term parole and were liable to have their freedom revoked for minor offences which could be trumped up easily.[156]

85.  We have not undertaken an in-depth assessment of whether the economic sanctions imposed multilaterally upon Burma achieved their desired effect. However, we are satisfied that enough progress towards reform has been made in Burma to justify some relaxation of the EU's sanctions regime, although we are in no doubt that Burma's human rights record remains seriously blemished. We believe that the UK can and should build on the current climate of goodwill to press for wider reform, including access to those still held in detention as political prisoners or for political offences or for politically-motivated reasons. Developments in Rakhine State, however, appear grim. We recommend that the UK urge the Burmese authorities to permit independent observers to visit Rakhine State, to gather objective evidence on the extent to which the rights of the Rohingya minority are being respected.

Boycotts of international events

86.  On at least three occasions this year, major international events have taken place in countries widely recognised as having flawed records on human rights: the Formula One Grand Prix in Bahrain in April, the Eurovision Song Contest in Azerbaijan, and the 2012 UEFA European Football Championship (Euro 2012), partly hosted by Ukraine. In each case, there were suggestions that the event should be boycotted in protest.[157]

87.  There were no plans for the UK Government to be officially represented at the Bahrain Grand Prix. There was pressure, however, on Formula 1 sponsors, drivers and the media to boycott the race, and some suggested that the UK Government should lend its support to such calls. The Prime Minister, however, said:

It's a matter for Formula 1, but let me be clear, we always stand up for human rights and it's important that peaceful protests are allowed to go ahead … I think we should be clear that Bahrain is not Syria, there is a process of reform underway and this government backs that reform and wants to help promote that reform.[158]

Mr Burt, giving evidence to us on 18 April on the Arab Spring, took the same line.[159]

88.  It emerged on 7 June that no UK Government ministers would attend England's three group games in the first stage of the Euro 2012 football championship in Ukraine, and that attendance at later stages of the tournament was being kept "under review in the light of ministers' busy schedules ahead of the Olympics and widespread concerns about selective justice and the rule of law in Ukraine".[160] The FCO's 2011 report on human rights noted that 2011 was a "year in which Ukraine's respect for democratic principles and the rule of law had been called into question, principally over the detention, trial and convictions of opposition political leaders".[161] The FCO pointed to evidence that trials had been seriously flawed and politically motivated, and the Rt Hon David Lidington MP, as Minister for Europe, registered dismay at the physical abuse by prison staff of the former Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko.[162] Senior European Commission figures, including the President and Viviane Reding (Justice Commissioner) announced that they would not attend Euro 2012 events in Ukraine, and Chancellor Merkel also said that no-one from her Cabinet would attend games played by Germany in Ukraine.[163]

89.  We questioned the Minister on the Government's policy, noting that there appeared to be inconsistencies both in its approach to the different stages of Euro 2012 and between the official lines taken with regard to the Bahrain Grand Prix and to Euro 2012. He accepted that the FCO was open to such charges, while saying that "it is very difficult to have absolute consistency in these matters"; and he pointed out that he had seen no comment in the media in favour of a boycott of the Chinese Grand Prix held in Shanghai, despite China's record of serious human rights abuses. He sought to justify the decision to impose at least a partial boycott of Euro 2012 events in Ukraine on the basis that "it was felt … important that the British Government demonstrated the concerns that exist here in Parliament about human rights in Ukraine. That was what was thought to be an appropriate signal of disapproval".[164]

90.   Witnesses representing human rights groups took a different view. Jeremy Croft, representing Amnesty International, said that Amnesty did not call for boycotts of sporting events because "we just do not believe that will achieve human rights change". Human Rights Watch also had a policy of not calling generally for boycotts of sporting or cultural events. Indeed, Mr Mepham observed that "we use the opportunity of those events to bring pressure to bear and to draw public attention to the abuses that are taking place there".[165] He referred to the "huge amount of advocacy and media work" which Human Rights Watch had undertaken to try to expose human rights abuses in Bahrain, and he noted that the issue had "got a lot of coverage" because of the Formula One Grand Prix. He also anticipated that the intense media coverage of the Eurovision Song Contest in Azerbaijan would present opportunities to draw attention to human rights abuses in the country.

91.  We find it difficult to discern any consistency of logic behind the Government's policy in not taking a public stance on the Bahrain Grand Prix but implementing at least a partial boycott of the 2012 UEFA European Football Championship matches played in Ukraine.

Denial of visas for entry to the UK

92.  The FCO's 2011 report on human rights states that

Britain welcomes visitors from around the world … but not those who have perpetrated human rights abuses. Foreign nationals from outside the European Economic Area may only come to the United Kingdom if they satisfy the requirements of the Immigration Rules. Where there is independent, reliable and credible evidence that an individual has committed human rights abuses, the individual will not normally be permitted to enter the United Kingdom.[166]

The Minister with responsibility for human rights confirmed, in correspondence with the Committee, that there had been a change in presumption, designed to leave human rights abusers "in no doubt where we stand".[167] However, that message is not particularly visible, as the Government does not routinely comment on individual cases and does not normally publicise the fact that an entry visa has been denied.[168] We also query the statement by the Minister that there exists a power to deny entry to the UK to those who are implicated in human rights abuses:[169] in theory that might extend to people who are guilty of nothing and are merely the subject of unfounded allegations. We ask the Department to confirm that the presumption against the granting of visas to enter the UK on human rights grounds would only apply to people against whom there was evidence that they had abused human rights.

93.  The exercise of the power to deny entry to non-EEA nationals on human rights grounds became a high-profile issue as a result of the case of Mr Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who was arrested in November 2008 while investigating an alleged tax fraud against the Russian state by law enforcement officials, and who was taken into pre-trial detention, where he died nearly a year later. In July 2011 the Russian Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights found that Mr Magnitsky had been denied medical treatment while in detention, and that there was "reasonable suspicion to believe that the death was triggered by beating".[170] We note that Mr Magnitsky's case is not an isolated one: according to the FCO, between 50 and 60 people die in pre-trial detention facilities in Russia every year.[171] According to the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service, 107,800 people were held in pre-trial detention in Russia on 1 October 2011.[172] Delays and a lack of progress in investigating deaths of human rights activists, lawyers and journalists continue, and prominent figures who fall foul of the Russian authorities face detention for long periods on dubious grounds (Mikhail Khodorkovsky being just one example). We also note the constraints on freedom of expression, as illustrated most recently by the imposition of a sentence of two years' imprisonment on members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot, for having "crudely undermined social order".[173]

94.  Hermitage Capital Management, the firm for which Mr Magnitsky worked, sent us a written submission recommending the public denial of visas and asset freezes for individuals who held responsibility in the chain of events which led to his death. Motions proposing such a course have been agreed to in the Dutch Parliament (but not taken up by the executive) and in the European Parliament. Legislation is proceeding through the US Congress which would introduce targeted visa bans and asset freezes for individuals held responsible not just for Mr Magnitsky's death but also for any extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of internationally recognised human rights in Russia.

95.  Even though the Government maintains that it does not routinely publicise the identity of banned individuals, it may well be that visas are already being refused to those linked to Mr Magnitsky's death.[174] The question which we have considered is whether the benefit to the Government and the UK in signalling publicly its insistence on human rights values could justify making public the denial of entry to those believed to be in serious breach of them. When we asked the Minister to explain why such decisions were not routinely made public, he told us that

If you get into justifying each individual case, you could make the case for justifying all kinds of new categories, and you could then make the case for legal appeals against the individual cases and we would end up with a hugely complicated system. For some people, for reasons of confidentiality or sensitivity, I think it would probably be regarded as reasonable not to release the details that underlie the decision. The position has been taken by successive Governments that it is better policy to have an overall policy that people understand, but not to comment on individual cases.[175]

Mr Browne accepted that publicising the refusal of a visa on human rights grounds "would send out a powerful message", but he suggested that there might be other, "less glorious" considerations which needed to be weighed against such an approach. Examples of such considerations might include the danger of prejudicing a trial in the country of origin, or the danger of retaliation against British nationals.[176] In further correspondence, the Government referred to the general duty of confidentiality "which means that it would not normally be appropriate to discuss details of individual immigration cases". The Government added that

it is also unhelpful to the effective operation of this policy to enter into a public debate about who should and should not be banned from the UK. Such decisions are by their nature emotive but need to be taken on the basis of objective and verifiable evidence available to Ministers.[177]

96.  Entry clearance policy is of course a Home Office responsibility, but the Foreign and Commonwealth Office retains a strong policy interest, and we are anxious that this should not be sidelined. We accept that routine disclosure of the fact that an entry visa had been denied might be inappropriate; but we detect an element of dogma and inflexibility in the Government's defence of its policy. We conclude that publicising the names of those who are denied visas to enter the UK on human rights grounds could be a valuable tool, when used sparingly, in drawing attention to the UK's determination to uphold high standards of human rights, and we recommend that the Government make use of it.

137   FCO Annual Report and Accounts 2011-12, Statement of Priorities, p13: "Our Purpose". Back

138   Human Rights and Democracy: the 2011 FCO Report, page 137 Back

139   Evidence given on 23 May 2011, Q 97, HC 964 (Session 2010-12) Back

140 Back

141   UK, France, Germany, China, Russia and the US Back

142   Alistair Burt MP, HC Deb, 25 June 2012, col 90W Back

143   Human Rights and Democracy: the 2011 FCO Report, page 178-9 Back

144   The Age (Melbourne), 7 June 2012 Back

145 Back

146   Jim Della-Giacomo, South East Asia project director, International Crisis Group, quoted on the BBC website: Back

147   Human Rights and Democracy: The 2011 FCO Report, page 183 Back

148   See HC Deb 4 July 2012, col 661W Back

149   HC Deb 17 July 2012, col 722W Back

150   See FCO press release 20 August 2012 Back

151   The Burmese political party led by Aung San Suu Kyi Back

152   The Nation, Bangkok, 6 May Back

153   HC Deb 15 May 2012, col 422 Back

154   HC Deb 19 June 2012 col 740 Back

155   Lord Howell, HL Deb 13 July 2012, col WA 282 Back

156   Mr Croft Q 57 Back

157   See for example and Back

158 Back

159   British foreign policy and the 'Arab Spring', Second Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, Session 2012-13, HC 80, evidence given on 18 April 2012, Q 226. Back

160 Back

161   Human Rights and Democracy: The 2011 FCO Report, page 146 Back

162 Back

163 Back

164   Q 135 Back

165   Q 55 Back

166   Human Rights and Democracy, the 2011 FCO Report, page 55 Back

167   Ev 106 Back

168   See HC Deb 7 March 2012, col 935 Back

169   Ev 109 Back

170 Back

171   Human Rights and Democracy: The 2011 FCO Annual Report, page 302 Back

172   See Back

173 Back

174   See HC Deb 7 March 2012, col 937 Back

175   Q 130 Back

176   Q 131 Back

177   Ev 107 Back

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Prepared 17 October 2012