The FCO’s human rights work is centred around the idea of a rules-based approach: supporting the international rules-based order, built on rules shaped by Britain in the post-war era, with the UN at its heart; and promoting rule of law worldwide.
Current trends present challenges—and opportunities—for the UK’s ability to project influence through the UN human rights system. A global backlash is gathering pace, led by Russia and China, to challenge the legitimacy of the current international legal human rights framework. At the same time, power is draining away from the Security Council’s permanent five and towards the wider UN membership. Brexit, and the current US administration, mark a shift in the UK’s relationship with its traditional allies—though both could allow the UK to be more agile in its human rights diplomacy.
To meet these challenges, and make the most of the opportunities, the Government will need a clear strategy for engaging with the UN—working with those countries that share its values, and winning over those in the middle ground. It cannot afford to be complacent about its levers of influence. The UK has suffered unexpected defeats in UN votes, and should focus its attention on winning posts on influential committees in the UN. That will require the Government to invest more time and resources in UN election campaigns, and supporting UK nationals with the requisite expertise to gain key positions. In this shifting environment, Parliament and the public need the tools to hold the FCO to account for its human rights diplomacy. The FCO should publish clear and measurable objectives for its work at the UN.
The FCO also undertakes a range of activities to promote the rule of law and democracy, through FCO programmes, FCO-funded projects, and membership of international organisations. After Brexit, these will become an even more important means to promote democracy and the rule of law. Despite the FCO’s emphasis on rule of law in its human rights priorities, the FCO’s Human Rights and Democracy annual report lacks a clear definition of what this concept entails, particularly regarding clear and measurable objectives.
Promoting democracy and the rule of law presents opportunities and challenges for the FCO. It offers the opportunity to project the UK’s influence globally, developing a broader set of countries with which to trade, and fostering prosperity. However, the Government will inevitably face conflicting priorities between human rights and other policy areas, notably trade. The FCO also faces a challenge in defining limits of engagement with countries that fail to make sufficient progress in rule of law and democracy. We have concerns about the FCO’s engagement with Myanmar/Burma and Bahrain, given the gravity of rights violations in these countries, and are disappointed that the FCO has not designated Turkey as a priority country in the 2017 report.
Published: 11 September 2018