4.In her 2017 speech to the UN General Assembly, the Prime Minister said that the UN was “at the heart” of the international system, and called for countries to “come together and defend the international order that we have worked so hard to create”.3 The rules-based international order, and the UN, in particular, is “key to the UK’s objectives on human rights”.4 UK influence on human rights at the UN is exerted through three main levers: its position on bodies such as the Human Rights Council and Security Council; its financial contributions; and its representation in terms of personnel. Our inquiry identified several factors affecting the context within which this influence is exercised: the global backlash against human rights, the rise of the Global South, the US’s unpredictable stance on human rights, and Brexit.
5.The Human Rights Council (HRC) is the UN’s main intergovernmental forum on human rights. We received evidence praising the UK’s leadership role within the Council,5 where it contributes “as least as much” as any other state.6 The UK has taken the lead on certain country situations, including Syria and South Sudan; and on thematic issues, such as modern slavery and LGBT rights.7 The UK is also very engaged with the Universal Periodic Review process.8 However, some evidence accused the UK of shielding allies such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.9 The UK’s current term on the Council ends in 2019, and it has to wait one year before seeking re-election. Professor Sir Malcolm Evans, Chair of the UN Subcommittee for the Prevention of Torture, recommended that the UK should take a more visible role on human rights elsewhere within the UN system, to “pave the way for successful re-election—something which cannot be taken for granted at the moment”.10 Recent UN election defeats may offer lessons for the campaign: the FCO told us that, before the UK candidate to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) was defeated in 2017, they had been “very confident” of success.11 12
6.An important part of the UK’s influence at the UN derives from its status as one of five permanent members of the Security Council (the “P5”), and as the penholder on Central Africa, Colombia, Cyprus, Libya, Sudan, Yemen, Peacekeeping, Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict, and Women’s Participation and Protection in connection with Women, Peace and Security.13 The FCO works to ensure that “human rights remain prominent in the Security Council’s discussions”,14 and has had some success, bringing about a “clear shift” in the Council’s engagement on human rights, according to evidence.15 This includes adding human rights language to resolutions, organising briefings for members on rights issues, and deploying tools such as commissions of inquiry into abuses.16 The FCO’s latest Human Rights and Democracy report puts greater emphasis on the UK’s work at the Security Council, placing this in a new dedicated section.17
7.Even if the UK’s re-election to the Human Rights Council appears to be both far in the future and a safe bet, the recent unexpected failure of the campaign to re-elect a UK judge to the International Court of Justice should serve as a warning against any complacency on this front, and should encourage planning well in advance. The FCO should make re-election to the Council an explicit goal. In its response to this report, it should set out its strategy for re-election, including an early indication of timelines and resources. This should include an assessment of how far the UK had fulfilled its campaign pledges by the mid-point of its current three-year term. The FCO should also explain how it plans to advance human rights issues at the UN while it is not a member of the Council from 2020. It should set out in detail in which forums it will pursue human rights objectives, what those objectives are, and what resources will be dedicated to this work.18
8.The UK is the eighth largest donor to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)—which provides the secretariat to the Human Rights Council—and the 18th largest in per capita terms.19 Ben Emmerson QC, former UN Special Rapporteur on Counter-terrorism and Human Rights, warned us that the UN human rights system was “starved of funding”.20 OHCHR has said that, in addition to greater voluntary contributions, it needs an increase in its regular budget in order to carry out its mandated activities.21 The FCO’s Human Rights and Democracy report 2015 included a commitment to provide “indirect assistance” to the office by “coordinating donor initiatives” and “helping OHCHR to diversify its donor base”.22 However, this has not featured in subsequent reports.
9.The presence of UK nationals within the UN human rights system is a significant component of UK human rights diplomacy. As well as staff positions within bodies such as the OHCHR, there are a range of independent expert positions. These include special rapporteurs and members of working groups, who are appointed to report on particular countries or themes; and members of treaty monitoring bodies, who are elected by states. Though unpaid, independent expert positions fulfil an important function in the UN human rights system, and states play a significant role in the selection process, for both appointed and elected positions.23 Independent expert roles are significant to UK diplomacy for three reasons. First, while these individuals do not represent the Government,24 gaining positions is perceived as an indicator of national influence.25 Second, their work can coincide with British interests in promoting the international rules-based order.26 Third, at a time when the human rights system is under threat, UK experts can play a part in ensuring that it is not “diluted and undermined”.27 Despite this, some witnesses told us that the UK does not support candidates for independent expert positions to the same degree as other countries.28
10.UK nationals hold a number of high-level staff positions in the UN human rights system.29 However, “very few” have served as independent experts.30 At present, UK nationals hold one seat on a treaty body and two special procedure positions,31 though several special rapporteurs are dual nationals. There were 15 British candidates for special rapporteur positions in 2017, but none were successful. This could reflect a “deprioritisation” of these roles on the part of the Government, or a loss of UK influence, or both.32 Until 2014, UK nationals sat on four of the 10 treaty bodies—a similar number to other P5 states.33 Sir Malcolm Evans told us that, since then, there had been a “significant diminution” in UK participation: “Today, I am the sole serving UK national, after UK candidates were unsuccessful in a number of recent elections, or candidates not presented. This [ … ] seems to me to be taken in UN circles as an indication of declining UK traction in human rights matters”.34
11.The Government has acknowledged the need to improve its strategy for UN elections. The FCO told us that it had learned from recent experiences that ministerial engagement and diplomatic networks should be “focused on fewer elections”,35 with greater forward planning.36 In 2018, the UK opted not to put forward a candidate for the Committee on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)—for which it has never made a nomination—citing “difficult decisions about which bodies to seek election for”.37 Instead, the Government is prioritising an election to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).38 The FCO has also announced steps to increase support for UK candidates seeking UN appointments, though it is not clear how much progress has been made on this.39 We received submissions suggesting that the Government could do more to help UK nationals win appointments, by stepping up efforts to identify suitable candidates, inform them about open positions, and guide them through the application process,40 as well as making greater efforts to lobby.41
12.UK nationals within the UN system play an important role in human rights diplomacy—both in staff and independent positions. In response to our Report on the 2017 International Court of Justice election, the Government agreed to keep the Committee informed about its campaigns for UN elections. We appreciate the Government’s efforts since then to brief the Committee on the International Telecommunication Union election. We reiterate our call for the FCO to continue informing the Committee of each election campaign—to include a broad description of why the post matters, how it will be campaigning, how it will apply lessons drawn from previous experience, and how the post fits into its wider strategy. It should engage other stakeholders, including those in Parliament, in seeking support. In addition, the Government should update the Committee regularly on its five-year plan about the international elections that it plans to target—in private, if necessary.
13.We are concerned by the apparent decline in UK representation on the human rights treaty bodies, which could reflect diminished influence within the UN human rights system. While we appreciate that the Government is responding to recent UN election defeats by focusing on a smaller number of campaigns—and while we recognise the importance of the International Telecommunication Union—stepping back from the human rights system is not the answer. The fundamental values on which the system is based are under threat from a sceptical Russia and China, and a disengaged US. The FCO has been clear about the centrality of human rights to global security and economic growth. The Government should respond to the UN defeats by planning well in advance of upcoming campaigns and investing in relationships with a wider range of states at the General Assembly. In its deliberations over which international elections to prioritise, the Government should consider ringfencing elections to human rights positions. The Government should nominate a candidate for the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women at the next opportunity, in 2020, and should report its commitment to do so in response to this report.
14.While respecting the independence of special rapporteurs and working group members, the integrity of the selection process, and the need to support the best-qualified candidate, the Government should give greater support to UK nationals seeking these roles. This should include sharing details of positions with potential candidates, and offering guidance on application processes. In its response to this report, the Government should set out how it will do so.
15.The UN human rights system is facing a “backlash” from states that seek to undermine it.42 The FCO told us that “the Russians and the Chinese are attacking the human rights functions within the UN system”,43 and that China has used the Human Rights Council to promote its “alternative vision of human rights”.44 Beijing and other sceptics are working to shape human rights discourse, operating in a “Like-Minded Group”.45 They also weaponise budgets to weaken UN human rights mechanisms.46 The UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights has warned that Russia and China are attacking his office, devising “new means to cut the Human Rights Office’s budget, [and] reduce our effectiveness.”47 The UK has an important role in countering this. It is one of the few Western delegations that can compete with the Like-Minded Group in procedural battles.48 It defeated a challenge to the mandate on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in 2016,49 and arranged for the High Commissioner on Human Rights informally to brief Security Council members on Syria in March, after Russia blocked a formal briefing.50 The UK “works hard” in negotiations to protect funding for human rights mandates and posts.51
16.The human rights backlash is accompanied by a broader shift in power towards the Global South. The P5 have lost credibility,52 and the General Assembly has become more assertive. A wider range of countries are growing adept at using the human rights system, albeit often for political ends.53 This broader engagement is welcome, but there is a risk that it could strengthen the sceptics. In our inquiry into the UK’s failed re-election campaign to the ICJ, witnesses pointed—among other factors—to a decline in respect for the Security Council among the UN membership, a wish by some to attack the privileges of the P5,54 and a lack of UK influence in the General Assembly.55 When we asked whether the FCO should shift resources away from the Security Council to build relationships with smaller states in the General Assembly, former Foreign Secretary Lord Owen said: “We have to do both and we have to staff up the UN”.56
17.Amid these global shifts, the UK is becoming distanced from its traditional core partners at the UN—the US and the EU. Under President Trump, the US is a more “unpredictable” actor on human rights.57 In June, Washington announced its intention to withdraw from the Human Rights Council, accusing it of bias and hypocrisy.58 The Government has called this decision “regrettable”.59 Brexit will also mark a shift in UK human rights diplomacy, much of which is conducted in concert with the EU.60 Some witnesses highlighted the opportunities that Brexit and the US departure from the HRC offer for the UK to redefine its role at the UN, becoming “more agile”61 and “more directly influential”.62 However, these opportunities come with uncertainty about the UK’s focus and priorities.63 Sir John Sawers, former Permanent Representative to the UN, told us that, with Brexit: “We lose twice by, first of all, not being able to shape that EU position, which will form the basis for a common approach. We lose again because we are not part of that EU position in the General Assembly”.64
18.With its US and European relationships thrown into doubt, the UK will need to seek a broader range of partners. The FCO has suggested new avenues: Lord Ahmad told us that he was keen to “make that Commonwealth caucus work to good effect within the UN”.65 However, this will be complicated: Richard Gowan has argued that such a shift is “exceedingly unlikely to work”, as some influential Commonwealth countries are critics of Western positions on human rights, and that the UK may be better served by building coalitions on a case-by-case basis, rather than “locking itself into another bloc”.66
19.The UK’s human rights diplomacy at the UN is facing serious challenges. While increased engagement by the Global South is welcome, attacks on the system by China, Russia and others are a cause for grave concern, particularly at a time when the US appears to be stepping back from multilateralism. Resource constraints make the UN human rights system particularly vulnerable to being compromised. Given the UK’s diplomatic skills, and status as a P5 member and major donor, it can play an important role in countering the backlash and protecting the international human rights framework. It will need a clear strategy for engaging with the UN—working with those that share its values, and winning over those in the middle ground, to isolate Russia and China—and will need to ensure that its priorities are clearly communicated to its partners.
20.In its response to this report, the FCO should set out how it plans to meet the challenges posed by changing political fault lines at the UN. This should include the steps it is taking to work more closely with a broader range of member states, and to address country situations of concern at the General Assembly. It should set out how it plans to co-ordinate its human rights diplomacy with the EU, and how it plans to build a caucus with new partners, such as the Commonwealth. It should also set out how this strategy will be supported by its staffing and resourcing plans for its UN missions over the coming years. The Government should work to ensure the independence and sustainability of the OHCHR. It should assess whether its current level of donations is sufficient, in the light of the challenges facing the system. As a major donor, it should consider supporting the OHCHR’s call for a greater share of the UN budget, and consider returning to its previous commitment to indirectly support the Office by assisting with donor initiatives. The UK should also consider how UN independent experts can be better supported and resourced, given that they are currently unpaid yet play such an important function in the UN human rights system.
21.Over the last three years, the FCO’s Human Rights and Democracy report has offered a decreasing level of detail on its objectives at the UN—and on human rights more broadly. The 2015 report introduced a detailed set of aims and practical goals for “strengthening the rules-based international system”, among other themes.67 This was reduced to a smaller section in the 2016 report, which listed four broad aims at the UN, including difficult-to-measure commitments such as: “contribute to the promotion, protection and fulfilment of human rights worldwide”.68 The 2017 report no longer had a section on objectives at all. More broadly, Sir Malcolm Evans warned us that the fluctuation between specific and general priorities in the UK’s human rights diplomacy “sows confusion”, and could undermine the UK’s work at the UN: “I believe the failure to be closely identified with a number of core issues, sustained over time, makes it more difficult for the FCO to achieve its goals and to maintain a clear position in international human rights diplomacy”.69
22.The UK’s human rights diplomacy will be carried out in a complex and shifting environment in the coming years, and the UN will play a still-greater role in UK foreign policy after Brexit. It is crucial that Parliament and the public have the tools to hold the FCO to account for its human rights work at the UN. The move away from specific human rights objectives to vague aspirations—which at worst amount to little more than warm words and waffle—is a retrograde step. To remove the objectives altogether, at a time when they are more important than ever, is alarming. To a cynical observer it suggests an attempt to dodge accountability for success or failure against measurable objectives. In its next Human Rights and Democracy report, the FCO should publish detailed and measurable goals for its human rights diplomacy at the UN.
3 Theresa May’s speech to the UN General Assembly 2017, 20 September 2017
4 FCO, Human Rights & Democracy: The 2015 Foreign & Commonwealth Office Report, Cm 9245, April 2016, Annex A
10 Sir Malcolm D Evans KCMG OBE (HMR0027), para 7 Richard Gowan, of the European Council on Foreign Relations, has also warned that “some non-Western powers might well like to prevent” the UK’s re-election. Separation anxiety: European influence at the UN after Brexit, Richard Gowan, European Council on Foreign Relations, 8 May 2018
12 Corrigendum. Please note that the paper version of the Report is incorrect: in paragraph 5, the number of years the UK has to wait before seeking election to the Council should be one, not three. In paragraph 7, the period of the UK’s required absence from the Council will end in 2020, not 2022.
13 UN Security Council Working Methods: Penholders and Chairs, 20 February 2018, Security Council Report
17 FCO, Human Rights & Democracy: The 2017 Foreign & Commonwealth Office Report, Cm 9644, July 2018, page 19
18 Corrigendum. Please note that the paper version of the Report is incorrect: in paragraph 5, the number of years the UK has to wait before seeking election to the Council should be one, not three. In paragraph 7, the period of the UK’s required absence from the Council will end in 2020, not 2022.
19 Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, UN Human Rights Report 2017, May 2018, page 138
20 Q34 OHCHR receives less than 4% of the total UN regular budget, relying on unpredictable voluntary donations for more than half of its funds. In 2018–19, OHCHR will get 3.7% of the UN budget. OHCHR’s Funding and Budget, accessed 18 July 2018
21 OHCHR: Funding Trends, accessed 18 July 2018
22 Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Human Rights and Democracy 2015, April 2016, Annex A
23 The role of states is less explicit for “special procedure” candidates, including special rapporteur and working group members, who are—in theory—appointed by the HRC on the basis of individual applications. However, some submissions highlighted the influence of state lobbying in this process. By contrast, the selection of treaty monitoring body members is explicitly state-led. Individuals are nominated by their country of nationality, and then elected by all states parties. There are sometimes negotiations within regional groups, and support often consolidates behind specific candidates before the vote.
Qq25–26 [Natalie Samarasinghe]
Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales (HMR0026), para 18
Dr Rhona Smith (HMR0034), para 14, 17
Q55 [Professor Rosa Freedman]
Towards a 21st century treaty body system, Wilton Park, 28 February–2 March 2017, WP1574
28 Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales (HMR0026), para 15
Dr Rhona Smith (HMR0034), summary Q25 [Natalie Samarasinghe]
29 For example, Andrew Gilmour was appointed as Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights in October 2016
31 These are: Professor Sir Malcolm Evans, Chair of the UN Subcommittee for the Prevention of Torture; Rhona Smith, Special Rapporteur on Cambodia; and Sorcha MacLeod, who was appointed in July 2018 to the Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries.
33 Sir Malcolm D Evans KCMG OBE (HMR0027), para 3 These were: Professor Sir Malcolm Evans; Diane Mulligan, member of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (until 2016); Professor Sir Nigel Rodley, Chair of the Human Rights Committee (until 2016); and Patrick Thornberry, member of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (until 2014).
39 In 2016, the FCO said that it had “strengthened and restructured” the team of officials working to support candidates for senior UN positions, including targeted support for those applying for positions of “strategic importance”. The FCO’s website has a page titled “Guidance: Working for international organisations”, that was last updated in October 2015. It has a link to register for alerts about senior jobs in international organisations, including the UN, and states that the FCO will “draw upon this resource when targeting positions of key importance”. In July, the FCO again said that it was “in the process of expanding the team that tries to secure jobs for Brits in different international organisations”.
Leigh Day: Written question, HL423, 6 June 2016
Guidance: Working for international organisations, updated 9 October 2015, accessed 18 July 2018
42 The global backlash against human rights, edited text of a lecture by Andrew Gilmour, United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, University of California, Berkeley and McGeorge School of Law, Sacramento, 12 and 13 March 2018
44 China and the international rules-based system inquiry, written evidence from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (CIR0018), section 2
45 Human Rights Watch describes this as an “amorphous group” that has usually included Algeria, Bangladesh, Belarus, Bhutan, China, Cuba, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Myanmar/Burma, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, Russia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syria, Venezuela, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe.
Human Rights Watch, The Costs of International Advocacy: China’s Interference in United Nations Human Rights Mechanisms, 5 September 2017
47 The global backlash against human rights, edited text of a lecture by Andrew Gilmour, United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, University of California, Berkeley and McGeorge School of Law, Sacramento, 12 and 13 March 2018
54 Foreign Affairs Committee, 4th Report - 2017 elections to the International Court of Justice, HC 860, 27 February 2018
55 Oral evidence: The UK’s Influence in the UN, HC 675, 19 December 2017, Q48 [Lord Hannay of Chiswick GCMG]
58 US withdraws from UN Human Rights Council, Katrina Manson, Financial Times, 19 June 2018
59 FCO, Boris Johnson: US Human Rights Council withdrawal is regrettable, 19 June 2018
60 Dr Rhona Smith (HMR0034), para 24
CAFOD (HMR0019), para 3.6
Brexit may increase the importance of the UN, meaning that the UK’s “window into the world will be even more through the United Nations”, as the then-Permanent Representative to the UN put it in July 2016.
Ambassador Matthew Rycroft discusses UK priorities for UN at parliamentary meeting, UNA-UK, 7 July 2016
62 Ben Emmerson QC (HMR0029), para 7
Some evidence also suggested that Brexit would allow the UK to be more flexible in terms of funding to UN agencies.
UNA-UK (HMR0002), para 1
63 Q17, Q32 [Natalie Samarasinghe]
Oral evidence: Global Britain, HC 780, 30 January 2018, Q25 [Baroness Ashton]
66 Separation anxiety: European influence at the UN after Brexit, Richard Gowan, European Council on Foreign Relations, 8 May 2018
67 FCO, Human Rights & Democracy: The 2015 Foreign & Commonwealth Office Report, Cm 9245, April 2016, Annex A
68 FCO, Human Rights & Democracy: The 2016 Foreign & Commonwealth Office Report, Cm 9487, July 2017, Annex A
Published: 11 September 2018