Global Britain: Human rights and the rule of law Contents

2Promoting the rule of law and democracy

Defining democratic values and the rule of law

23.In 2015, the Government announced a change in its overall human rights priorities. Instead of eight specific priorities,70 it set out three broader themes, largely based on the idea of supporting a rules-based approach.71 The 2015 and 2016 Human Rights and Democracy reports both open with a chapter that sets out the FCO’s work on “democratic values and rule of law”. However, despite this emphasis on the rule of law, the reports do not offer a clear definition of the concept. Murray Hunt, Director of the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law, told us that clear definitions are crucial: “when we say we promote democracy, the rule of law and human rights [ … ] we have to get much more detailed about what that actually means in practice, and what the more detailed core concepts and principles are.”72 The 2017 report features even less detail on the rule of law: the first chapter has been renamed as “Human Rights and Democracy Priority Themes”, and references to the rule of law have been removed entirely from the chapter.

24.We welcome the emphasis on a “rules-based” approach in the Government’s human rights priorities—both within the UN and more broadly. This builds on the UK’s strengths, as one of the core supporters and founders of the international rules-based order, and represents a pragmatic approach to promoting human rights worldwide. In the light of this, the lack of detailed reporting on rule of law activities in the FCO’s Human Rights and Democracy reports is unhelpful. In future reports, the FCO should provide a clear definition of what it means by the rule of law and should distinguish its strands of activity on the rule of law from its work on broader human rights and democracy promotion.

Activities and programmes

25.The FCO undertakes a range of programmes to promote the rule of law and democracy. These are delivered in a variety of ways: directly by posts; through FCO-funded projects administered by civil society organisations; and through UK membership of international organisations. The Magna Carta Fund is the FCO’s dedicated strategic fund for delivering human rights and democracy work. In 2016–17, the Fund provided support to 118 projects from a budget of £10.6m. Of this, 97% went to countries eligible for official development assistance (ODA), and 65% went to human rights priority countries, a set of 30 countries in which the FCO concentrates its human rights activities (these include Bahrain, China and Iraq).73 Additionally, the FCO provides support to rule of law activities through other Government funds such as the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF), the Global Britain Fund, and the Rules-Based International System Fund.74 Additionally, a large proportion of the FCO’s work to promote democratic values is undertaken by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, an executive non-departmental public body which receives grant-in-aid funding from the FCO and a grant from DFID.

26.There have been concerns raised about the lack of accessible information on some UK human rights funding programmes, e.g. the CSSF, the Global Britain Fund and the Rules-Based International System Fund, as well as human rights funding through posts, and on the impact of human rights programme funding more generally. The FCO should be clearer about how all such funding is allocated and used and what it achieves, and should inform us in its response to this report how it plans to increase transparency in this respect. The FCO should also clarify how, following Brexit, monies currently provided to EU human rights funding streams will be reallocated to advance the UK’s international human rights work.

Work through international organisations

27.The UK also undertakes activities to promote and defend democracy and the rule of law through membership of a range of international organisations, including the Commonwealth, NATO, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). A significant proportion of the UK’s work in this area is undertaken in partnership with the EU.75 Membership of the Council of Europe also provides a key outlet for “the UK to advance its human rights objectives in Europe and beyond”.76 The UK’s delegation to the Council’s Parliamentary Assembly has played a role in promoting democratic values and the rule of law through the Council of Europe’s mechanisms, including participating in recent election observation missions in Turkey and Azerbaijan. The leader of the delegation, Sir Roger Gale MP, told us how it has “blazed the trail” to root out internal corruption within the Council.77 Angela Smith MP told us that the UK has been firm in its stance on member states with rule of law violations, notably Russia (currently facing full suspension) and Azerbaijan.78 She said that the Council of Europe would become an increasingly important forum for projecting UK influence: “We are a soft power, and we have to use our soft power effectively. The Council of Europe will be one of the remaining places where we can deliver and make good use of that soft power”.79

28.Following the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, UK involvement in these mechanisms will become an even more important tool for the UK’s work to promote democracy and the rule of law, strengthening the international rules-based system.

Opportunities and challenges

Projecting UK influence globally

29.The FCO’s work to strengthen democratic values and the rule of law globally provides an important instrument for projecting the UK’s influence overseas, driving trade and prosperity through the promotion of these values. Ben Emmerson summarised how promoting the rule of law can enable trade and attract investment through the creation of a framework of states with shared legal understandings and mechanisms. With independent judiciaries and the ability to adjudicate disputes without bribery or corruption, doing business is simpler.80 Murray Hunt added:

it is an important part of our global influence to take moral leadership on these issues, including the rule of law. It is also part of another objective—promoting business and promoting a rules-based international legal system. This is all part of creating the conditions for stability, security and prosperity.81

30.Promoting the rule of law and democracy globally is key to developing the UK’s prosperity. Simply put, it is easier for the UK to trade with countries that adhere to internationally accepted norms on the rule of law with clear and fair judicial processes than with those that do not share these common systems and values.

Conflicts with other Government priorities

31.In practice, the FCO can face challenges in supporting human rights in countries with which the UK has other and potentially conflicting priorities in areas such as trade and development. We received evidence citing specific examples of conflicts between the UK’s approach to trade policy and human rights in Saudi Arabia and the Philippines, stating that the UK has failed to take a firm approach to human rights violations in these countries due to trade relationships.82 The UK’s trade relations with non-EU countries are currently mediated through several types of EU agreements,83 which include clauses relating to human rights, the rule of law and democracy. In preparation for Brexit, the UK is seeking to roll over existing trade agreements, and to strike new deals with other countries. However, there is concern that this may be used as an opportunity to remove the human rights components of the deals.84 Lord Ahmad said that he could not give assurances on “what clauses, in what way, in what nature” future trade deals would include human rights.85 He added that “of course it’s a priority, but we have also got to be reflective of how we can get the greatest traction with particular countries”.86

32.There is also a widespread perception that the FCO is prioritising trade objectives above all others. This was reinforced by a senior FCO official’s evidence before a predecessor Committee in 2015,87 and by the number of UK trade envoys appointed by the UK Government in comparison with the number of human rights envoys or representatives.88

33.The Government will face conflicting priorities between human rights and other Government policies, especially trade deals. This may create short term conflicts, but the prioritisation of human rights is in the UK’s long-term commercial, as well as moral, interest. The Government should commit to including human rights clauses within future trade agreements. In its response, the Government should set out how this commitment could work in practice. It should also explain to us the steps it is taking to promote joined-up working between representatives from other Government departments within posts.

Limits of engagement

34.The FCO also faces a challenge in defining potential limits of engagement with countries that fail to make sufficient progress in rule of law and democracy reform. The 2016 report’s country profile for Myanmar/Burma describes the deterioration of the situation in Rakhine State, detailing “torture, ill treatment, extrajudicial killing, arson, mass rape and other forms of sexual violence committed by security forces”.89 The situation has since further deteriorated with atrocity crimes committed against the Rohingya community, a development acknowledged in the 2017 report.90 The UK Government has continued to fund programmes in the country, notably a £25 million DFID multi-year programme of parliamentary strengthening support to the Burmese Parliament and a £720,000 FCO-administered CSSF programme to reform law and order through the security sector.91 The International Development Committee has expressed concern about parliamentary support to Myanmar/Burma, and recommended that DFID and implementing partners should review the project, and suspend it if satisfactory progress has not been made.92 Burma Campaign UK said:

Despite all the changes in Burma and major human rights crises, the Foreign Office approach to Burma appears to be based on the same assumptions and narrative developed in 2012. There should be a mandatory periodic review or evaluation of policy in countries with human rights concerns.93

35.Written evidence also expressed concern about continued FCO assistance to Bahrain on human rights and the rule of law. Since 2012, the FCO has provided more than £5 million of funding for technical assistance to train Bahraini police and prison guards on human rights and investigate allegations of torture. This includes £400,000 for a public order project, despite crackdowns on public protest in Manama. Very few details of the spending, which is funded predominantly through the CSSF, have been made public. The Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy states that the FCO is “denying the severe violations perpetrated by the Bahraini government; as well as the failures of UK funded oversight bodies”.94 Since the commencement of the UK support programme, capital punishment has resumed, with 14 individuals sentenced to death in 2017.95 The FCO has assessed the situation in Bahrain as a “mixed picture”.96 Murray Hunt suggested that rule of law programmes should have clear performance markers: “We need to have agreed mechanisms in advance for scrutinising rule of law performance on the basis of agreed values that are spelled out in detail.”97

36.The FCO should outline clear mechanisms for measuring progress in its rule of law and democracy programmes. Whilst the door to negotiation with states must always be kept open, the FCO should respond firmly to countries that fail to make sufficient progress in these areas in order to underline the importance of international standards and rules on human rights. States that fail to make progress, or that regress, should be subject to repercussions, including the suspension of support. For the most extreme cases, such as the ongoing serious and systematic abuse of the Rohingya from Rakhine province by the Burmese government, the FCO should create a measured and graduated set of responses to human rights catastrophes. The FCO should review the current situation in Bahrain and Myanmar/Burma and report its findings to us to further consider whether funding should continue to either country.

Selection and assessment of human rights priority countries

37.The FCO’s annual Human Rights and Democracy reports contain assessments of 30 designated human rights priority countries. In selecting these countries, the FCO considers the human rights situation in the country, its human rights trajectory, and the UK’s ability to influence change.98 The list of priority countries remained unchanged in the 2017 report, although the profiles are more detailed. The assessments provide a concise overview of the situation within a country together with mentions of UK (or EU) efforts to tackle human rights abuses.99 In written evidence, there was criticism of the style and content of the FCO’s assessments, including “the inconsistent quality of reporting between country entries”.100 For example, the entry for Iran is critical of violations of freedom of religion and belief and LGBT rights, whereas the entry for Saudi Arabia does not mention this, despite the situation also being very serious. Lord Ahmad said that “the non-inclusion of a country does not necessarily mean [ … ] that we are not doing quite specific things bilaterally”.101 We note with surprise the decision not to include Turkey, given the sustained human rights transgressions within the country and the UK’s potential to influence the government, a concern reflected in numerous submissions to the inquiry.102

38.Although we agree that the FCO must necessarily be selective in its choice of priority countries, and in the information provided under each entry, we are disappointed by the omission of Turkey, given the sustained and worrying deterioration in the human rights situation. We recommend that the FCO designates Turkey as a priority country in its next report. We also recommend, to improve the consistency of the information provided for each of the priority countries, that some key human rights indicators, including the use of the death penalty, treatment of minority groups and the LGBT community, respect for freedom of religion or belief, women’s rights and the situation of human rights defenders, are addressed under every entry.

70 These were known as “6+2”: abolition of the death penalty; global torture prevention; women’s rights; freedom of religion or belief; freedom of expression; business and human rights; democratisation; and preventing sexual violence in conflict.

71 Sir Malcolm D Evans KCMG OBE (HMR0027), para 4 These are: “democratic values and the rule of law”, “strengthening the rules-based international system”, and “human rights for a stable world”.

73 FCO, Magna Carta Fund Programme Strategy 2016/17, 2016
FCO, Human Rights & Democracy: The 2016 Foreign & Commonwealth Office Report, Cm 9487, July 2017, page 29
For example, in Ukraine, the Magna Carta Fund has funded programmes to defend the rights of the LGBT community and to support journalists and human rights defenders in Crimea.

74 Foreign and Commonwealth Office HMR0028

75 For example, through joint working in Burundi, Colombia and the DPRK.

78 Q66
Further detail on this work can be found in the FCO’s 2017 report. FCO, Human Rights & Democracy: The 2017 Foreign & Commonwealth Office Report, Cm 9644, July 2018, page 21

82 Campaign for Human Rights in the Philippines (HMR0009), Human Rights Watch (HMR0024), War Child UK (HMR0022)

83 These include Free Trade Agreements, Cooperation Agreements and Association Agreements.

84 CAFOD (HMR0019), The Rights Practice (HMR0017)

87 Oral evidence: FCO budget and capacity, HC 467, 15 September 2015, Qq9–11

88 There are currently 31 trade envoys, while the FCO’s latest Human Rights and Democracy Report names just three human rights envoys or special representatives, covering four issues: Lord Ahmad, as the Prime Minister’s Special Representative on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict, and the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief; Joanna Roper, as the FCO’s Special Envoy for Gender Equality; and Sir Eric Pickles (The Rt Hon Lord Pickles), as UK Envoy for Post-Holocaust Issues.
Trade envoys, accessed 28 August 2018
FCO, Human Rights & Democracy: The 2017 Foreign & Commonwealth Office Report, Cm 9644, July 2018.

90 For further information see the Foreign Affairs Committee’s inquiry into violence in Rakhine state.
Foreign Affairs Committee, First Report of Session 2017–19, Violence in Rakhine State and the UK’s response, HC 435

91 Department for International Development, Programme for Democratic Change, Development Tracker Myanmar, updated 1 June 2018
FCO, Conflict, Stability and Security Fund Burma

92 International Development Committee, Fourth Report of the Session 2017–19, Bangladesh, Burma and the Rohingya Crisis, HC1054, para 74

93 Burma Campaign UK (HMR0011)

94 Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) (HMR0008)

95 Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) (HMR0008)

100 Amnesty International UK (HMR0031)

102 For example Human Rights Watch (HMR0024)
The predecessor Committee’s report into The UK’s Relations with Turkey also recommended the designation of Turkey as a priority country. The FCO rejected this recommendation, and stated that it would continue to monitor developments in the country.
Corrigendum: Please note that the paper copy of the Report incorrectly cited Reprieve HMR0001.

Published: 11 September 2018