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

9  Business and human rights


92. On 4 September 2013, the Government published an action plan on business and human rights setting out how it would implement the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The UK was the first country to draw up such a plan. The purpose of the action plan is to provide clear guidelines to British businesses about the Government's expectations of their behaviour overseas in respect of the human rights of people who contribute to, or are affected by, their operations. According to the Government, it will "encourage initiatives to introduce human rights due diligence".[169] The Companies Act 2006 also now requires listed companies "to report on their human rights impacts".[170]

93. Commenting after the publication of the action plan last September, Amnesty International UK said that the action plan had many positive proposals that would lead to real improvement in business impacts in human rights, if properly implemented.[171] However, it believed that the action plan lacked a clear sense as to how these proposals would work on the ground, and whether the political will existed to make this happen. Written submissions from UNICEF and the Corporate Responsibility Coalition (CORE) also called for greater accountability, saying that the Government needs to "devise clear goals and success criteria for each commitment/proposed actions" to ensure that progress can be "measured and verified".[172] Baroness Warsi equivocated on the question about what makes the action plans more than a 'set of aspirations' by saying that the Government is using its "networks to get companies to buy into this [action plan]".[173] She added that without buy-in, "you are not going to force businesses to do human rights work".[174]

94. In our report on the FCO's human rights work in 2011, we observed that a strategy which was "couched exclusively in terms of guidance and voluntary initiatives, while undoubtedly worthwhile, would not, on its own, meet the spirit of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights".[175] Mr Mepham suggested that the published Action Plan placed "too much focus and reliance on voluntarism".[176] Baroness Warsi told us that the National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights "is based on [the UN] guiding principles but, fundamentally, focuses on the voluntary aspect".[177]

95. We note support for the National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights from some human rights organisations such as Amnesty International UK, but we also note concerns about whether it will be fully implemented, whether there is political will to develop it, and whether it lacks teeth. If the Action Plan is to command confidence, the Government should indicate that mandatory measures are being held in reserve if voluntary measures are not effective in improving business respect for human rights.


96. The Government believes that the promotion of business and respect for human rights should go "hand in hand", and that trade is most sustainable in markets that offer protection of, and respect for, human rights.[178] The Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) has constantly argued this is not always the case, pointing to the friction that exists between the UK's pursuance of commercial interests (particularly arms sales) overseas and its advocacy of human rights. In its written submission, CAAT said that the "UK government's advocacy of human rights is undercut by the promotion of arms exports and related policies".[179] The FCO's 2013 Report accepted that the UK does "export licensable equipment to countries which feature as countries of concern in this report", but went on further to say that "commercial relationships do not and will not prevent us from speaking frankly and openly to the governments of these countries about issues of concern, including human rights".[180] The Committees on Arms Export Controls concluded that the Government would do well to acknowledge that there is an inherent conflict between strongly promoting arms exports to authoritarian regimes whilst strongly criticising their lack of human rights at the same time rather than claiming, as the Government continues to do, that these two policies "are mutually reinforcing".[181]

97. The Government raises human rights concerns with certain countries through a formal bi-lateral human rights dialogue. The 21st round of the UK-China Human Rights Dialogue was held in May 2014, where senior officials discussed a full range of concerns around international civil and political rights. The Government believes that the Dialogue is an important part of its bilateral relationship with China, and that "open exchanges are vital in progressing that".[182] The Rt Hon Michael Fallon MP, the then Minister for Business and Enterprise, said that human rights should not "get in the way" of expanding trade ties with China and "these things get raised but we should not allow them to get in the way of a very important trade relationship".[183]

98. Tim Hancock, Campaigns Director of Amnesty International UK, cited another incident that illustrated the potential conflict between the UK's business interests abroad and its promotion of human rights values. Mr Hancock thought that it was "remarkable"[184] that a FCO Minister had spoken alongside President Museveni of Uganda at an event to promote investment in Uganda, on the same day that the first prosecutions were coming to court under what was described as "draconian piece of legislation" criminalising same-sex relations in Uganda.[185] When we raised this apparent conflict with Baroness Warsi, she said that "sometimes these things happen".[186] The Government maintains that human rights and business interests go hand in hand. This was undermined by UK Government Ministers sending conflicting messages that appeared to indicate that advocating human rights was subservient to promoting UK trade and investment. The Government should recognise that this conflict exists: by doing so, the Government would be better able to articulate how it is able to achieve both of its legitimate foreign policy objectives. In cases where a conflict arises, such as when the Government engages in business with an authoritarian regime, and particularly when it sells arms to such a regime, the Government should set out explicitly how UK trade and investment would help to influence positive change in human rights in that country.

169   HC Debate, 6 May 2014, col 71W [Commons written answer] Back

170   Ibid. Back

171   "UK's Action Plan on Business and Human Rights - a break with the past?", Amnesty International UK blog, 4 September 2013, Back

172   Memoranda from UNICEF (paragraph 3) and Corporate Responsibility Coalition (paragraph 2.3) Back

173   Q 86 Back

174   Ibid. Back

175   Foreign Affairs Committee, Third Report of Session 2012-13, The FCO's human rights work in 2011, HC 116, paragraph 109 Back

176   Q 23 Back

177   Q 76 Back

178   FCO, Human Rights and Democracy: 2013 FCO Report, Cm 8870, April 2014, page 112 Back

179   Memorandum from Campaign Against Arms Trade Back

180   FCO, Human Rights and Democracy: 2013 FCO Report, Cm 8870, April 2014, page 97 Back

181   Committees on Arms Export, First Joint Report of the Business, Innovation and Skills, Defence, Foreign Affairs and International Development Committees of Session 2014-15, Scrutiny of Arms Exports and Arms Controls (2014): Scrutiny of the Government's UK Strategic Export Controls Annual Report 2012, the Government's Quarterly Reports from October 2012 to September 2013, and the Government's policies on arms exports and international arms control issues, HC 186, paragraph 106 Back

182   "Hugo Swire comments on UK-China Human Rights Dialogue", FCO press release, 21 May 2014, Back

183   "China's Human Rights Abuses 'should not get in the way' of trade talks, says UK Minister", Huffington Post, 17 June 2014, Back

184   Q 25 Back

185   Ibid.  Back

186   Q 112 Back

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Prepared 27 November 2014