9 Business and human rights |
NATIONAL ACTION PLAN ON 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
The Companies Act 2006 also now requires listed companies "to
report on their human rights impacts".
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.
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".
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]".
She added that without buy-in, "you are not going to force
businesses to do human rights work".
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".
Mr Mepham suggested that the published Action Plan placed "too
much focus and reliance on voluntarism".
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".
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
UK INTERESTS AND 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.
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
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".
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".
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".
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".
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"
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.
When we raised this apparent conflict with Baroness Warsi, she
said that "sometimes these things happen".
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
"UK's Action Plan on Business and Human Rights - a break
with the past?", Amnesty International UK blog, 4
September 2013, www.amnesty.org.uk/blogs/ Back
Memoranda from UNICEF (paragraph 3) and Corporate Responsibility
Coalition (paragraph 2.3) Back
Q 86 Back
Foreign Affairs Committee, Third Report of Session 2012-13, The
FCO's human rights work in 2011, HC 116, paragraph 109 Back
Q 23 Back
Q 76 Back
FCO, Human Rights and Democracy: 2013 FCO Report, Cm 8870,
April 2014, page 112 Back
Memorandum from Campaign Against Arms Trade Back
FCO, Human Rights and Democracy: 2013 FCO Report, Cm 8870,
April 2014, page 97 Back
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
"Hugo Swire comments on UK-China Human Rights Dialogue",
FCO press release, 21 May 2014, www.gov.uk/government/news/hugo-swire-comments-on-uk-china-human-rights-dialogue Back
"China's Human Rights Abuses 'should not get in the way'
of trade talks, says UK Minister", Huffington Post,
17 June 2014, www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2014/06/17/chinas-human-rights-abuse-trade-fallon_n_5502436.html Back
Q 25 Back
Q 112 Back