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

8  UK's participation in the UN Human Rights Council


77. The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) is an intergovernmental body made up of 47 UN member states elected for three-year terms. According to its website, the Council is responsible for promoting and protecting human rights around the globe. Its principal mechanisms are: the Universal Periodic Review system which serves to assess the human rights situation in each United Nations member state; the Advisory Committee, which provides the Council with expertise and advice on thematic human rights issues; and the Complaint Procedure which allows individuals and organisations to bring human rights violations to the attention of the Council. The Council's membership is based on equitable geographic distribution with 13 seats for Africa, 13 for Asia, six for Eastern Europe, eight for Latin America and the Caribbean, and seven for Western Europe and other states.

78. The UK served two terms on the UNHRC from 2006-2011, and election to the Council for the 2014-16 term was a priority for the UK Government in 2013. In November 2013, elections took place at the 68th Session of the UN General Assembly, and the UK was elected. Following the election, the Foreign Secretary stated that, as well as being active on country-specific resolutions, the UK would champion a number of thematic issues, including ending sexual violence in conflict, the need for full participation of women in peace-building and the universal right to freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief.

79. Since the election, the UK has been involved in a number of high-profile issues. A number of written submissions to the Committee gave credit to the UK for its leadership in securing strong resolutions on Sri Lanka and Democratic People's Republic of Korea. On the other hand, criticisms have been levelled at the UK for not supporting a resolution on the use of drones and not providing access for a UN Special Rapporteur to a site in the UK. In some quarters, this is seen as indicating an inconsistency of approach.


80. In March 2013, a United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) was established by a unanimous decision of the UN Human Rights Council. The Commission was given a mandate to investigate independently the reports of systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights in the country.[147]

81. In February 2014, the Commission of Inquiry published its final report, which detailed accounts of human rights violations in North Korea. It found evidence of: murder, enslavement, torture, rape, executions and disappearances; deliberate use of starvation as a means of control and punishment in detention centres; almost absolute bans on ordinary citizens travelling abroad; and persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds. The Commission concluded that the "the gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world", and it believed that its findings constituted reasonable grounds to establish that crimes against humanity had been committed.[148]

82. We asked Human Rights Watch what it thought could be done to follow up on the Commission's report, given that the UK and its global partners had almost no leverage and influence over the North Korea. Mr Mepham, the UK Director of Human Rights Watch, said that it was incumbent on the British Government to "find ways in which the findings of [the] report, via the General Assembly, can get onto the agenda of the Security Council".[149] Without a referral from the UN Security Council, the International Criminal Court (ICC) has no jurisdiction to investigate or prosecute North Korea.[150] The Government has stated that it is keeping the prospect of a UN Security Council Resolution under review. When we pressed Baroness Warsi on what steps the Government was taking to table a resolution on human rights violations in North Korea at the UN Security Council, she said "[the Committee] will be aware of how the UN Security Council operates and some of our challenges with the P5 and the impact that could have".[151]

83. Whilst we recognise the difficulties of garnering support at the UN Security Council for action against the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea), the gravity of the human rights violations by North Korea is so severe that the UK and its partners at the UN Security Council should not be seen to stand by. We encourage the FCO not to give up on using UN organs, including the Security Council, to bring pressure to bear on North Korea to improve the human rights of the population, and to work towards securing referral of North Korea to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.


84. The UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, Ben Emmerson QC, was commissioned by UN Human Rights Council in June 2012 to report on the use of remotely piloted aircraft in extraterritorial lethal counter-terrorism operations. In his final report in March 2014, the Special Rapporteur concluded that the current legal uncertainty in relation to the interpretation and application of international law to the use of remotely piloted aircraft had left a "dangerous latitude" for differences of practice by states.[152] He called for states to provide greater legal clarity and transparency on their use of remotely piloted aircraft, and to launch independent inquiries in all cases where use of such systems has resulted in civilian death or injury.[153] The Defence Committee, in its report on the current and future use of RPAS, has recommended that the UK Government should "engage actively in the debate" on the matters raised by the UN Special Rapporteur.[154] The Government, in its response to the Defence Committee report, observed that the "UN Special Rapporteur had identified a number of interesting legal questions" and said that it was "carefully considering the recommendation of the Special Rapporteur".[155]

85. On 28 March 2014, the UN Human Rights Council adopted Resolution L32 on the use of remotely piloted aircraft in counter-terrorism and military operations, backing the main conclusions of the Special Rapporteur's report. However, the UK joined the US, South Korea, Japan, France and Macedonia in voting against the Resolution. The written submission from Human Rights Watch states that the resolution "simply called on states to comply with their obligations under international law and for application of principles of precaution, distinction and proportionality", and describes it as "regrettable" that the UK was described the one of six states that voted against this "modest" resolution.[156] Amnesty International described the UK's failure to support it as a "black spot" in an otherwise good session.[157]

86. In explaining its 'No' vote at UN Human Rights Council, the UK questioned whether the issue lay within the scope of the Human Rights Council's mandate, arguing that the appropriate law was international humanitarian law, which the Council did not have a mandate to consider.[158] Baroness Warsi told us that the appropriate forum for a debate around the use of drones would either be the UN General Assembly or UN Security Council.[159] When pressed on the implications on the use of drones of international law and international humanitarian law, she wrote to us, stating that the Government believes that "existing rules of international law governing the use of force and armed conflict are sufficient to regulate the use of RPAS [drones]".[160]

87. We wrote to the Foreign Secretary in September 2014, and asked two questions about the use of drones:

i)  What steps the Government was taking to satisfy itself that the use of armed drones by the UK was consistent with international law; and

ii)  Whether the FCO accepted the view of the UN Special Rapporteur that there was a lack of international consensus on various key legal questions on the use of RPAS, all of which needed to be resolved urgently.

The Foreign Secretary, in his letter on 10 October, replied that before undertaking any form of military operation, the Government satisfied itself that the use of armed drones was lawful by undertaking an analysis of its legality, including how detailed rules of international humanitarian law might apply.[161]

88. With respect to the various legal questions raised by the UN Special Rapporteur, the Foreign Secretary told us that the "UK Government believes that international law on the use of military force is absolutely clear", and that the "existing international legal framework is clear and robust", and is "fully capable of governing" the use of drones.[162] Baroness Anelay, the FCO Minister with responsibility for human rights, has said that the FCO had "no plans to respond in writing to the report by the UN Special Rapporteur" as the UK had set out its position on the legality of RPAS at the UN Human Rights Council 'expert meeting' on 22 September 2014.[163] We see signs of a shift in the Government's policy: when asked previously about the need for greater legal clarity, the Government had replied that the UN Special Rapporteur had raised important legal questions; but its recent answer to us appeared rather dismissive of his findings. There is a clearly a difference of opinion between the UK Government and the UN Special Rapporteur on whether there is international consensus on the legal parameters surrounding the use of drones. We believe that the Government should acknowledge this and provide a written response detailing its points of disagreement with the UN Special Rapporteur's findings to both Parliament and the UN Human Rights Council.


89. Under Special Procedures authorised by the UN Human Rights Council, independent human rights experts are given mandates to report and advise on human rights from a thematic or country-specific perspective.[164] United Nations Association-UK described 'Special Procedures' as the "jewel in the crown" of the UN human rights system.[165]

90. One such special procedure was the mandate given to Ms Rashida Manjoo, the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women. She came to the UK in April 2014 as part of her mandate, to examine the causes and consequences of violence against women. Following her visit, she reported that:

    "I regret that, despite my repeated requests, a visit to Yarl's Wood immigration detention centre was not facilitated by the Government, and that my access to the Centre was denied, when I tried to visit it independently. Due to receiving information from the third sector, I was keen to speak to detainees in this facility to objectively seek information on violations being experienced."[166]

United Nations Association-UK raised concerns about the UK's handling of this visit, and drew on it as an example of where the UK's own human rights record may "affect its ability to operate effectively at the Council".[167] Baroness Warsi explained that the visit to the centre was requested at short notice, and as Yarl's Wood is an operational centre, "short notice visits are unlikely to be possible". The FCO is now developing a new process to work with other government departments to improve cross-Whitehall preparations for future visits of UN Special Rapporteurs.[168]

91. We find it surprising that the Home Office was unable to facilitate a request, even at short notice, from a UN Special Rapporteur to visit Yarl's Wood immigration detention centre. It sets a dangerous precedent for other countries to follow suit and has caused embarrassment to the UK. We welcome the Minister's assurance that the FCO is developing a new process to work with other government departments to improve cross-Whitehall preparations for future visits by UN Special Rapporteurs.

147   "North Korea: UN Commission documents wide-ranging and ongoing crimes against humanity, urges referral to ICC", OHCHR press release, 17 February 2014, Back

148   "North Korea: UN Commission documents wide-ranging and ongoing crimes against humanity, urges referral to ICC", OHCHR press release, 17 February 2014, Back

149   Q 35 Back

150   North Korea is not a signatory to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Back

151   Q 101 Back

152   Ben Emmerson QC, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, 10 March 2014 Back

153   Ibid. Back

154   Defence Committee, Tenth Report of Session 2013-14, Remote Control: Remotely Piloted Air Systems - current and future UK use, HC 772, para 157 Back

155   Defence Committee, Sixth Special Report of Session 2014-15, Remote Control: Remotely Piloted Air Systems - current and future UK use: Government Response to the Committee's Tenth Report of Session 2013-14, HC 611, paragraph 18 Back

156   Memorandum from Human Rights Watch, paragraph 27 Back

157   Q 22 Back

158   "Human Rights Council, Geneva : UK Statement on Resolution L32", FCO news article, 28 March 2014, Back

159   Q 82 Back

160   Memorandum from the FCO (HRS0034) Back

161   Letter from Foreign Secretary to Committee Chairman on 10 October 2014 Back

162   Ibid. Back

163   HL Debate, 14 October 2014, col WA29 Back

164   "Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council", OHCHR webpage, Back

165   Memorandum from United Nations Association-UK, paragraph 11 Back

166   "Special Rapporteur on violence against women finalizes country mission to the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland", OHCHR news article, 15 April 2014,  Back

167   Memorandum from United Nations Association-UK, paragraph 24 Back

168   Memorandum from the FCO (HRS0034) Back

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Prepared 27 November 2014