The FCO's human rights work in 2013 - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

2  The FCO's Annual Report on Human Rights and Democracy 2013

4. The 2013 FCO Report on Human Rights and Democracy (2013 Report) is in a format similar to that of previous years: it analyses country situations where there are concerns around human rights and comments on a number of thematic issues that cut across geographical boundaries. An important focus for 2013 was the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative, which was launched by the Foreign Secretary in May 2012. Other initiatives prioritised in 2013 were:

·  The defence of freedom of religion or belief worldwide;

·  Agreement on the world's first treaty to control arms trade;

·  The UK's election and return to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC); and

·  The launch of the UK Action Plan on Business and Human Rights.[3]

5. In addition to these five initiatives, the FCO reported on several other thematic issues, including:

·  The abolition of the death penalty;

·  The prevention of torture;

·  The right to freedom of expression;

·  The promotion of equality and non-discrimination including women's and children's rights; and

·  Business and human rights.

Countries of concern

6. The FCO identified 28 countries of concern in the 2013 Report; these are the same as those designated in the 2012 Report (published in 2013) with the addition of the Central African Republic.

Table 1: Countries of Concern
·  Afghanistan

·  Belarus

·  Burma

·  Central African Republic (CAR)

·  China

·  Colombia

·  Cuba

·  Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK)

·  Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)

·  Eritrea

·  Fiji

·  Iran

·  Iraq

·  Israel and Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPTs)

·  Libya

·  Pakistan

·  Russia

·  Saudi Arabia

·  Somalia

·  South Sudan

·  Sri Lanka

·  Sudan

·  Syria

·  Turkmenistan

·  Uzbekistan

·  Vietnam

·  Yemen

·  Zimbabwe


7. In the FCO's 2012 Report, the set of criteria used to designate countries of concern were:

·  the gravity of the human rights situation in the country, including both the severity of particular abuses and the range of human rights affected;

·  whether a deterioration or improvement in the human rights situation in the country would have a wider impact in the region;

·  whether the human rights situation in the country has an impact on wider UK interests; and

·  how active the UK is in the country and our level of engagement there.[4]

In our report last year, we recommended that the last two criteria should no longer apply.[5] The Government, in its response to our recommendation, said that UK engagement or interests were not factors that were applied in evaluating human rights standards in a country, and were only applied to "determine which countries among all those where there are concerns about the human rights situation should be a particular focus of FCO efforts".[6] We note that in the 2013 Report, the last criterion was replaced by "whether we are able to influence the human rights situation there".[7]

8. The FCO has taken steps to be more transparent about its designation of countries of concern in this year's report by using a range of internationally respected human rights indicators and indices in deciding which countries to designate.[8] The indicators and indices used by the FCO were:

·  the Freedom in the World assessment of Political Rights and Civil Liberties drawn up by the Freedom House;[9]

·  the Political Terror Scale, a yearly measure produced by academics from the USA;[10]

·  the World Press Freedom Index prepared by Reporters Without Borders;[11]

·  the Religious Restrictions Index compiled by Pew Research Center;[12]

·  Amnesty International's Death Sentences and Executions record;

·  the UN Human Development Index;

·  the UN Gender Inequality Index; and

·  whether the country was subject to UN Security Council resolutions, or country mandates or country specific resolutions of the UN Human Rights Council.

Baroness Warsi told us that, while the identification of countries of concern was "much more independently verifiable", there was still an element of "human intervention"; ambassadors, high commissioners, FCO desk officers in London and Ministers all contributed their understanding of the countries to help the Foreign Secretary make a final decision.[13] We welcome the FCO's efforts to draw upon a wider range of indices in assessing and reaching decisions on human rights standards in individual countries. We note, however, that there is still an element of subjectivity in making the final decision on the countries of concern, and the level of UK influence in a country, and the impact on its interests there, are factors in determining the final designation. The FCO's list of countries of concern is therefore not an objective league table of the world's worst human rights offenders but a subset of these countries on which the FCO will focus.

Case study countries

9. Country case studies were introduced in the 2011 Report (published in 2012), and have again been included in the 2013 Report. The FCO explains that these countries did not meet the overall threshold to be designated countries of concern but were judged to be facing human rights challenges or to be on a "trajectory of change" with regard to their human rights performance.[14] This year, six country case studies have been included: Bahrain, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Rwanda and Egypt.[15] Human Rights Watch told us that the exclusion of Bahrain, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Rwanda from the list of countries of concern was unjustified, given the "objective gravity" of human rights abuses in these countries and the extent of UK influence with their governments.[16]

10. We have not taken detailed evidence during this inquiry on conditions in any of these case study countries. However, we continue to have concerns that wider political and strategic interests in some of these countries colour decisions on whether they should be designated as countries of concern, as we observed in our report on the FCO's human rights work in 2011 (published in 2012).


11. Bahrain, for example, was designated not as a country of concern but as a country case study in the FCO's 2012 Report, and the FCO maintained that this designation struck "the appropriate balance" between progress made in some areas and continuing concerns in others.[17] The FCO has made the same argument this year in defending its decision to designate Bahrain as a country case study.[18]

12. We examined in detail last year the UK's relations with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, including the FCO's policy on human rights in the two countries. We concluded that the UK should press for Bahrain to implement the recommendations set out in the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), engage seriously in dialogue and welcome UN mechanisms in order to re-establish good faith in its intentions.[19] We recommended that, if there was no significant progress by the start of 2014, the Government should designate Bahrain as a country of concern in its next Human Rights Report.[20]

13. The Bahrain case study in the FCO's 2013 Report gives an update on progress on reform implementation. The FCO says that the Government of Bahrain continues to implement the recommendations set out in the BICI, but it acknowledged that some areas of reform had been "slower than hoped".[21] Human Rights Watch, in its written submission to our inquiry, stated that the Government of Bahrain had done "very little" to implement the BICI recommendations, and that serious human rights abuses in the country remained pervasive.[22] We note the continued detention of Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, who was sentenced to life imprisonment for taking part in the 2011 uprising in Bahrain. He started his second hunger strike in August 2014 in protest at his detention.[23] Two other high profile human rights defenders were arrested in Bahrain in 2014. Maryam Al-Khawaja, the daughter of Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, was arrested on 30 August 2014, and was held in custody for 19 days before being released.[24] The charges still stood at the time of release.[25] Nabeel Rajab, President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, was arrested in October 2014 on charges of "insulting a public institution" over Twitter. He had been imprisoned in Bahrain for two years between July 2012 and May 2014 for exercising his right to freedom of assembly for participating in, and calling for peaceful protests.[26] Mr Ellwood, the FCO Minister responsible for the region, has said that the FCO was monitoring the situation of Mr Al-Khawaja closely and had been given assurances by the Bahraini Ministry of Interior's Ombudsman's Office that he had been provided with regular health care.[27] The FCO also urged the Government of Bahrain to respect international norms of justice in their treatment of Maryam Al-Khawaja and Nabeel Rajab.[28] Nonetheless, we see little or no evidence that Bahrain has made enough progress in implementing political reform and safeguarding human rights, and we believe that the FCO should have bitten the bullet and designated Bahrain as a country of concern.


14. In oral evidence, David Mepham, the UK Director of Human Rights Watch, singled out Egypt and said that its exclusion from the FCO's list of countries of concern was "extraordinary" given what had happened over the previous six to nine months.[29] He cited the deaths of over 1,000 people in July and August 2013 when the Egyptian security forces used excessive force in clearing protesters at sit-ins in Cairo. Tim Hancock, Campaigns Director of Amnesty International UK, raised concerns about the Egyptian judiciary.[30] The most striking example was the death sentences handed down to 1,212 people, mostly Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters, in March and April 2014.[31] Although most of these sentences were commuted on appeal by Egypt's Grand Mufti, 220 people were still sentenced to death.[32] On 23 June 2014, a court in Cairo sentenced three English staff members of Al-Jazeera to multi-year prison sentences after a trial in which prosecutors had failed, in the eyes of many, to present any credible evidence of criminal wrongdoing.[33]

15. The International Bar Association's Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI), in its report "Separating Law and Politics: Challenges to the Independence of Judges and Prosecutors in Egypt", expressed concerns over the recent swathe of controversial judgments issued by the Egyptian courts. Baroness Kennedy QC, Co-Chair of the Institute, has stated that the judgments appear to be politically motivated and to focus on members of opposition forces, protesters and journalists.[34] The Egyptian Ambassador to the UK was summoned to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on 23 June 2014 and was told that the British Government was "deeply concerned" by the verdicts on the journalists, along with the procedural shortcomings seen during the trials.[35]

16. Some steps are being taken towards progressing democratic reform in Egypt. In January 2014, Egypt held a constitutional referendum in which over 98 per cent of people voted in favour of a new constitution; a new President, Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, was elected in June 2014; and parliamentary elections are planned to take place before the end of 2014.

17. Egypt was designated by FCO in its 2012 Human Rights and Democracy Report (published in 2013) as a case study. Despite events in the last 12 months, and despite acknowledgment by the FCO that the human rights situation in Egypt deteriorated in 2013, the FCO has not chosen to reflect a change of status to country of concern. There is a powerful case for doing so, particularly given continuing restrictions on fundamental political and civil rights, attempts to curtail the work of non-governmental organisations, and lack of due process. We recognise, however, that attempts are being made, through a new constitution and setting up of parliamentary elections, to lay the foundations for a more democratic and representative Egypt. We attach key importance to the promised reforms being implemented.


18. There is merit in a 'halfway house' concept and in flagging countries where there is a risk of deterioration in human rights severe enough to warrant future designation as country of concern. However, we are not convinced that 'case study' is an appropriate term for such countries. It is misleadingly soft on countries that would benefit from a more critical assessment by the FCO. We recommend that the FCO use the term case study purely for illustrating FCO activity and human rights programmes. A different term should be used for countries which the FCO is signalling are at risk of being designated country of concern in future.

Accountability of the FCO's human rights work

Setting and evaluating objectives

19. The FCO's 2013 report provides useful narratives on its human rights initiatives, often including background detail on both the historical and contemporary issues facing a particular human right. However, Mr David Mepham, representing Human Rights Watch, told us that the FCO was not clear enough in the 2013 Report about what it was trying to change. We asked Baroness Warsi whether the FCO had clear outcome-based objectives when it started initiatives or interventions in foreign countries. She replied:

    "…I don't think you can start off by saying, "we are going to achieve this within this time frame," because human rights work is incremental and it does not always head in the right direction all the time. You might make some progress, Egypt is a classic example, and then start to go backwards. Therefore, it is not something you can continuously measure in a specific way. You can measure areas such as the death penalty, for example…However, it cannot always be achieved for some of the other human rights work."[36]

20. The FCO has attempted to define "goals" in respect of the death penalty:

·  to further increase the number of abolitionist countries, or countries with a moratorium on the use of the death penalty;

·  further restrictions on the use of the death penalty in retentionist countries and reductions in the numbers of executions; and

·  to ensure that universal minimum standards are met in countries which retain the death penalty.[37]

'Torture Prevention' is another area where goals have been set and the FCO's work is underpinned by a strategy.

21. Some other thematic priorities are less clear in their objectives. For instance, in respect of freedom of religion or belief, it is not clear whether the FCO will focus its attention on particular geographical regions, or concentrate resources on governments that fail to protect their citizens from violence by non-state actors, or on reducing infringements imposed directly by government, or on a combination of these. The FCO would benefit from having specific goals as it would have a better understanding of what it is trying to achieve.

22. The 2013 Report, perhaps as a consequence of not having clearly defined objectives, seems to us to be weak in evaluating the Department's human rights policies and initiatives. Mr Mepham said that the report remained a "list of activities", and that "benchmarks" had not been clearly established yet.[38] We arrived at a similar conclusion in our report on the FCO's work on human rights in 2011, and recommended that the FCO "experiment with accountability measures for some of its human rights programmes, for instance by setting benchmarks, targets and indicators".[39] In its response, the Government agreed that it was important to evaluate the impact of its work and said that, in other policy areas, the FCO endeavoured to review the impact of its work "against 18 priority foreign policy outcomes with the setting of milestones and targets".[40] The Government had committed to reflect this approach in relation to its human rights work where possible and said that it would also consider how it could improve the measurement of the impact of the Human Rights and Democracy Programme Fund.

23. The FCO assesses its achievements against the 'priority foreign policy outcomes' in its Annual Report and Accounts and in its annual Departmental Improvement Plan (DIP).[41] In the July 2014 publication of the DIP, the FCO assessed its achievements of 2013 against 15 'priority foreign policy outcomes', and marked whether it had achieved its targeted outcome.[42] It provided comments for each outcome to inform progress and explain the reason behind its achievement categorisation. Two of the 15 outcomes related directly to human rights work: the development of a new International Protocol on the investigation and documentation of sexual violence in conflict and the adoption of a UN Arms Trade Treaty. Both of these outcomes were achieved in 2013.

24. Arguments are put forward that progress in human rights is inherently difficult to measure. Attributing change directly to an FCO policy or intervention may be challenging when so many other, independent actors are also involved in human rights work. Another reason cited by human rights organisations is the problem of conducting periodic performance evaluations on human rights policies that are often designed to achieve long-term and systematic changes.[43] While both examples highlight some of the difficulty, we do not believe the argument is wholly satisfying. Human rights policy is not unique; almost all other government policies face similar difficulties in evaluation. We believe that human rights policy, like any other aspect of government policy, would benefit from the establishment of clearly defined objectives and benchmarks to measure outcomes. We recommend that FCO, in next year's report, include short sections outlining objectives for, and evaluation of, each of its key initiatives, and we reiterate our recommendation from our report on the FCO's work in 2011, that the FCO should assess its work and should experiment with accountability measures for its human rights programmes.

The Foreign Secretary's Advisory Group on Human Rights

25. The Foreign Secretary's Advisory Group on Human Rights was set up in November 2010 to provide the Foreign Secretary with the "best possible information about human rights challenges", and for the FCO to benefit from "outside advice on the conduct of its policy".[44] Since its creation, a number of sub-groups have been established to provide expert advice on specific areas of human rights. While the FCO's 2013 Report made some mention of the Advisory Group on Human Rights and its sub-groups, limited information was available on what was discussed during the meetings held during the year and almost no disclosure was made on the advice provided to FCO Ministers and staff by the panel of experts of the advisory groups. We believe that it would be in the interests of transparency if summaries of discussions at meetings of the Advisory Group on Human Rights and its sub-groups were published.


26. The 2013 Report did not specify the total expenditure on the FCO's human rights work in the 2013-14 financial year. Although the FCO maintains that it is not possible to provide a definitive figure for the total cost of its work in supporting human rights abroad, it was able to provide a figure of £6.5 million for the spending through the Human Rights and Democracy Programme Fund (HRDP) in financial year 2013-14.[45] We pressed the FCO for a figure which encompassed spending on human rights work across all of the Department's work. The FCO carried out some analysis and provided an estimate of £39.3 million for 2013-14, albeit with heavy caveats.[46] The FCO told us that it was difficult to calculate total expenditure as human rights considerations were mainstreamed across all FCO activities (safeguarding security, promoting prosperity, supporting consular services); indeed Baroness Warsi argued that the entire FCO budget could be said to have a human rights dimension.[47] While we recognise the difficulty in estimating total costs of the FCO's human rights work, an annual figure compiled on a consistent basis, even if inexact, would be useful in showing trends in spending over the years. We believe that the FCO analysis was useful and encourage the FCO to provide equivalent figures in future years.

27. A number of points were raised in the evidence about the constraints on use of FCO funding for human rights project work. Professor Evans said that having to work with an Embassy or High Commission could potentially be a "big disincentive" for local civil society actors working with a 'foreign government' as it might arouse suspicion and heighten risk of interference by state authorities, and strain relationships with other civil society organisations in that country.[48] Professor Evans, and others (AB Colombia and Christian Solidarity Worldwide), argued that the timeframe of project funding should be extended and that, rather than operating on an annual application cycle, the FCO should allocate funding for longer timeframes, if it were to have "meaningful impacts".[49] In order to do this, the FCO would have to allocate funding beyond its annual budgetary cycle, so there is a small risk that the FCO may not have sufficient funds to fulfil its commitments to recipient bodies; but given the relatively small amounts of money involved, the likelihood of this happening is minimal. We recommend that the FCO review the configuration of its funding mechanisms for human rights programmes. The FCO should provide funding to longer-term human rights projects that extend beyond the current 12 month timeframe.

3   FCO, Human Rights and Democracy: 2013 FCO Report, Cm 8870, April 2014, page 21 Back

4   FCO, Human Rights and Democracy: 2012 FCO Report, Cm 8593, April 2013, page 120 Back

5   Foreign Affairs Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2013-14, The FCO's human rights work in 2012, HC 267, paragraph 11 Back

6   FCO, Government response to the Third Report of Session 2013-14 from the Foreign Affairs Committee, Cm 8762, page 3 Back

7   FCO, Human Rights and Democracy: 2013 FCO Report, Cm Paper 8870, April 2014, page 149 Back

8   Memorandum from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (HRS0035)  Back

9   Freedom House describes itself as an independent watchdog organisation dedicated to the expansion of freedom around the world. The Freedom House website states that it speaks out against the main threats to democracy and empowers citizens to exercise their fundamental rights. It analyses challenges to freedom; advocate for greater political and civil liberties; and support frontline activists to defend human rights and promote democratic change.  Back

10   The Political Terror Scale measures levels of political violence and terror that a country experiences in a particular year based on a 5-level "terror scale" originally developed by Freedom House. The data used in compiling this index comes from two different sources: the yearly country reports of Amnesty International and the U.S. State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. The Political Terror Scale was compiled by Mark Gibney, Linda Cornett and Peter Haschke from University of North Carolina and Reed Wood from Arizona State University. Back

11   Reporters without Borders is registered in France as a non-profit organisation, and its website states that it promotes and defends freedom of information and freedom of the press. It has consultant status at the United Nations and UNESCO.  Back

12   Pew Research Center describes itself as a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. It conducts public opinion polling, demographic research, media content analysis and other empirical social science research. Back

13   Q 54 Back

14   FCO, Human Rights and Democracy: 2013 FCO Report, Cm Paper 8870, April 2014, page 149 Back

15   Ibid.  Back

16   Memorandum from Human Rights Watch, third bullet point in summary Back

17   HC Deb, 18 March 2014, col 510W [Commons Written Answer] Back

18   HC Deb, 3 September 2014, col 262W [Commons Written Answer] Back

19   Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) was established on 29th June 2011. King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa appointed a panel of human rights experts to the BICI to examine the allegations of a brutal crackdown on protesters by Bahraini security forces from February and March 2011 (and thereafter). Chaired by Cherif Bassiouni, an Egyptian former war crimes lawyer for the UN, the Commission published a very critical report in November 2011, which described how prisoners had been hooded, whipped, beaten and subjected to electric-shock treatment, and stated that at least five prisoners had died under torture. Back

20   Foreign Affairs Committee, Fifth Report of Session 2013-14, The UK's relations with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, HC 88, paragraph 214 Back

21   FCO, Human Rights and Democracy: 2013 FCO Report, Cm 8870, April 2014, page 55 Back

22   Memorandum from Human Rights Watch, paragraph 13 Back

23   "Abdulhadi Al Khawaja Embarks on Hunger Strike", Huffington Post, 28 August 2014,  Back

24   "Bahrain: Maryam Al-Khawaja urges UK to speak out on human rights violations", Index on Censorship, 17 October 2014, Back

25   Bahrain activist Maryam al-Khawaja released", Al Jazeera, 18 September 2014, Back

26   "Bahrain: Arrest Of Leading Human Rights Defender Nabeel Rajab For Tweets", Bahrain Center for Human Rights, 1 October 2014, Back

27   HC Deb, 11 September 2014, col 716W [Commons Written Answer] Back

28   HC Deb, 11 September 2014, col 716W [Commons Written Answer], HL Deb, 28 October 2014, col WA 140 [Lords Written Answer] Back

29   Q 2  Back

30   Ibid. Back

31   "Egypt: One Court, One Month: 1212 death sentences", Website of Alkarama (Geneva based independent human rights organisation), 29 April 2014, Back

32   "'It is not a crime to carry a camera,' UN rights chief warns as Egypt sentences journalists", UN News Centre, 23 June 2014, Back

33   "Al-Jazeera journalists jailed for seven years in Egypt", The Guardian, 23 June 2014, Back

34   "Egypt: IBAHRI urges new government to strengthen independence of the judiciary in light of recent convictions", International Bar Association press release, 1 July 2014,  Back

35   HL Deb, 7 July 2014, Col WA7 [Lords written answer]  Back

36   Q 61 Back

37   FCO, Human Rights and Democracy: 2013 FCO Report, Cm 8870, April 2014, page 49 Back

38   Q 3 Back

39   Foreign Affairs Committee, Third Report of Session 2012-13, The FCO's human rights work in 2011, 11 September 2012, HC 116, paragraph 7 Back

40   FCO, Government response to the Third Report of Session 2012-13 from the Foreign Affairs Committee, Cm 8506, page 4 Back

41   FCO Annual Report and Accounts 2013-14, HC (2014-15) 17, p 11-19; FCO, FCO 2014 Improvement Plan, July 2014 Back

42   Against each outcome, the FCO would categorise its achievement as either 'achieved', 'partly achieved', or 'not achieved'. Back

43   "Measurement and Human Rights: Tracking Progress, Assessing Impact", Harvard Kennedy School Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Summer 2005, p 41, Back

44   "Foreign Secretary announces members of Human Rights Advisory Group", FCO webpage, 11 November 2010,  Back

45   The HRDP Fund supported 83 projects (with 26 of them running into the financial year 2014-15) targeted across eight specific areas: discrimination against women; freedom of expression; business and human rights; abolition of the death penalty; global torture prevention; freedom of religion or belief; democratic processes; and preventing sexual violence in conflict. Back

46   Memorandum from FCO (HRS 0034) Back

47   Memorandum from FCO (HRS0034) Back

48   Memorandum from Professor Evans Back

49   Q 41; See also memoranda from AB Colombia and Christian Solidarity Worldwide Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2014
Prepared 27 November 2014