Our modern globalised world is based on international agreements. Not only do they underpin the United Kingdom’s relationships with other countries, over a wide range of areas, they also frequently set the parameters for domestic policy making.
Currently many, but not all, of these international agreements are negotiated at EU level. They are scrutinised by the European Parliament and the Committees set up in the House of Commons and House of Lords to scrutinise EU matters, but otherwise usually attract little parliamentary attention. The UK’s withdrawal from the EU has prompted parliamentary consideration of the future scrutiny of agreements which were previously concluded at EU level. It should also prompt a wider consideration of parliamentary scrutiny of the treaty making process as a whole.
In this report, we look at one aspect of this: human rights in international agreements.
The Government needs to take action to ensure adequate consideration of human rights issues while international agreements are being negotiated. It needs to ensure negotiating teams have access to human rights expertise, and that there is clear information about human rights implications of such agreements in the internal sign off process. It should also ensure that future agreements contain clauses which protect human rights. They should include suspension clauses (which allow an agreement to be suspended if human rights are not adhered to) and exemption clauses (which prevent agreements being used to prevent state parties taking measures to protect or promote public morals, including human rights) as a matter of course. The Government should also consult on tailored standard clauses for particular types of agreement. It should be routine for all UK international agreements to contain such provisions.
Parliament’s role should also be strengthened. The current system of scrutiny for non EU agreements only allows scrutiny after the event. There should be more information provided to Parliament, earlier in the process. We look forward to colleagues’ views on how best to construct a parliamentary process to sift all international agreements and highlight those which require further consideration. Any such process will need to be properly resourced.
We consider the Government must inform Parliament of all international agreements that it intends to negotiate—at a minimum identifying the other party to the agreement and the subject matter and broad aims of the agreement. This information should also indicate any human rights issues that might be relevant to the negotiation as well as any human rights protections that might need to be sought.
The Government must provide a human rights memorandum for proposed international agreements once there is a draft text, unless the Minister has certified that no human rights issues could be engaged by the agreement. Such a memorandum could be very short for agreements raising few (if any) human rights issues. For those agreements raising more substantive human rights issues, such as complex trade or investment deals, extradition treaties, mutual legal assistance treaties or data sharing arrangements, more detailed human rights analysis would be required. This should help to ensure that the human rights implications of the UK’s international obligations are considered fully before the UK becomes bound by those obligations.
The Government should also report regularly to Parliament on the implementation of international agreements containing human rights protections, so that we can monitor compliance with human rights standards.
The Standing Order for the Joint Committee on Human Rights should be amended so that the remit covers “human rights relating to the UK’s international obligations” as well as “matters relating to human rights in the UK”.
The current restrictions on the export of arms and dual use items will remain in place immediately after Brexit, but the Government will have power to make changes by statutory instrument, or even by amending guidance. We recommend that the Government should consult the JCHR and the Committees on Arms Export Controls before making any such changes.
Published: 6 March 2019