The FCO's administration and funding its human rights work overseas Contents

2The FCO’s apparent deprioritisation of human rights

5.In 2011, former Foreign Secretary William Hague gave a firm indication of the importance that the previous Government attached to the FCO’s human rights work. He said that “our Government promised from the outset a foreign policy that will always have support for human rights and poverty reduction at its irreducible core”.4 In evidence to this Committee on the FCO and the 2015 Spending Review, the FCO’s Permanent Under-Secretary indicated a shift in this Government’s approach:

Sir Simon McDonald: …I say that although it [human rights] is one of the things we follow, it is not one of our top priorities. In a more constrained environment, the need to concentrate on Europe, Eastern Europe and Russia, and the Middle East has supplanted it to an extent, but in the work I am describing human rights is an integral element. Although, as a Department, it may not have the profile it had in the past, it is still an integral part of our work.

Ann Clwyd: Those sound like warm words, but I must press you, because it seems to those of us who follow human rights closely that trade and industry is a much higher priority and human rights comes pretty low down the list.

Sir Simon McDonald: I would dispute that it is low down, but I would not dispute that right now the prosperity agenda is further up the list.5

6.The Committee was grateful for the Permanent Under-Secretary’s candour but concerned by its implications, as were human rights organisations such as Amnesty International.6 Sir Simon’s evidence was in the context of his department modelling 25% and 40% spending cuts as an unprotected department. As it turned out, our subsequent report7 was endorsed and these proposed cuts averted. However, apparent deprioritisation remains an issue. The FCO used its written and oral evidence to this inquiry to address the question of whether it has deprioritised human rights. In written evidence the FCO stressed that “human rights are an integral part of the work of the Foreign Office’s work”8 whilst in oral evidence the Minister of State said:

Has it [human rights] been deprioritised? Firmly, no. It is still the priority, because it is what every single diplomat does as part of everyday work. Is it a priority? Yes, indeed it is.9

7.Whilst we received written submissions which praised the work of officials in the FCO,10 some were of the view that the Permanent Under-Secretary’s words are reflected in the FCO’s recent practice. Human Rights Watch said:

… the assertion that human rights are no longer in the top league of FCO concerns is consistent with what Human Rights Watch has observed over the last 18 months—not just in the language that many ministers and officials use, but, more importantly, in the FCO’s practical response to human rights abuses.11

8.By way of example, Human Rights Watch highlighted the FCO’s response to the human rights crisis in Egypt:

The FCO/UK response to the human rights crisis in Egypt has been extremely weak … In March 2015, Middle East Minister Tobias Ellwood, when questioned by the FAC, couldn’t recall whether he had raised human rights issues with the Egyptian government during a trip to the country accompanied by a large UK business delegation. Mr Ellwood has also suggested that Egypt was taking “steps towards a stronger democracy” and that UK/Egyptian relations were “in a very positive place”. The first claim ignores the extensive evidence of repression that Human Rights Watch and others have documented, while the second speaks volumes about the diminished role of human rights in current UK foreign policy.12

We are disappointed by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State’s choice of language on this occasion and others, which raises questions about how energetically the Government is raising human rights issues. For example, we also noted the tone of the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State’s statement in Westminster Hall13 on the death of the University of Cambridge doctoral student, Italian national Giulio Regeni; and, following our recent visit to Cairo, we feel that overall the UK has not been supporting the Italian authorities as forcefully as his murder deserved. The Minister of State, Baroness Anelay, recognises that “if there is a perception that says they [human rights] are not a priority, that is a perception we have to work to redress and address”.14 Whilst the Minister strongly rejected the suggestion that the FCO has deprioritised human rights, the written evidence that we received indicates that there is plainly a perception that this has occurred.

9.Perceptions and symbols matter, particularly in the context of the UK’s soft power and international influence. We recommend that the FCO is more mindful of the perceptions it creates at Ministerial level, especially when other interests are engaged such as prosperity and security, as is the case with China, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

10.The Committee also noted, as regards the way in which civil society is consulted and able to input into relevant policy and programmes, that although a number of organisations continue to be appreciative of the opportunities to meet FCO officials, some felt it had become harder to get access to senior Ministers and their immediate advisors,15 and even that engagement at Ministerial level seemed to be more about box-ticking than genuine consultation.16 More generally, a number of NGOs believed that the FCO did not provide enough information, including on the policy-making process, to allow them to engage as effectively as they might otherwise do.17 There is also concern that the FCO may focus on engaging with larger more well-established NGOs at the expense of smaller organisations, particularly in third countries.18

11.We, along with many others, noticed the FCO’s decision not to fly the Rainbow Flag for London Pride in 2015, which reversed the policy of the previous Foreign Secretary and separated the FCO from the numerous other Government departments which did fly the Rainbow Flag.19 The decision by the current Foreign Secretary not to fly the Rainbow Flag at FCO buildings for Pride 2015 signalled an apparent change in FCO policy and sent a message that contradicts much of the actual work and objectives of the FCO. We recommend that the FCO reverses its decision not to fly the Rainbow Flag for national Pride events. In the absence of such events due to host nation intolerance of equality around sexuality, the FCO should fly the Rainbow Flag from Missions abroad alongside the Union Flag on IDAHOT Day (International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia).

12.During the course of this Parliament we shall assess whether this apparent deprioritisation is addressed and continue to examine the actual support for human rights by the FCO and its Ministers across the globe.

4 Speech given on 31 March 2011 at the launch of the FCO’s 2010 Annual Report on Human Rights and Democracy, “There will be no downgrading of human rights under this Government”.

5 Oral Evidence taken on 15 September 2015, HC 467, Q10 and Q11

7 The FCO and the 2015 Spending Review, HC 467, First Report of Session 2015–16

8 FCO (HUM00019) para 3

9 Q47

10 Human Rights Watch (HUM0006) para 4.1, Q4 and Q28

11 Human Rights Watch (HUM0006) para 1.2

12 Human Rights Watch (HUM0006) para 1.5

13 HC Deb 2 March 2016 col, 332WH as corrected in HC Deb 9 March 2016 col 3MC

15 Human Rights Watch (HUM0006) para 4.2

16 Free Tibet and Tibet Watch (HUM0011) para 9

17 Amnesty International (HUM0025) para 28, Christian Solidarity Worldwide (HUM0018) para 25, Free Tibet and Tibet Watch (HUM0011) para 13 and Human Rights Watch (HUM0006) para 4.3

18 Amnesty International (HUM0025) para 38

© Parliamentary copyright 2015

Prepared 30 March 2016