Global Britain: Human rights and the rule of law Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

Human rights diplomacy at the UN

1.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. (Paragraph 7)

2.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. (Paragraph 12)

3.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. (Paragraph 13)

4.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. (Paragraph 14)

5.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. (Paragraph 19)

6.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. (Paragraph 20)

7.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. (Paragraph 22)

Promoting the rule of law and democracy

8.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. (Paragraph 24)

9.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. (Paragraph 26)

10.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. (Paragraph 28)

11.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. (Paragraph 30)

12.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. (Paragraph 33)

13.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. (Paragraph 36)

14.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. (Paragraph 38)

Published: 11 September 2018