1.International agreements, covering everything from trade to cultural cooperation to law enforcement underpin our modern, globalised world. Indeed, there are very few areas where a country can set domestic policy without reference to international standards and agreements. Deals done in such agreements can impact on human rights—as the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission has said in its evidence to us:
“International agreements entered into by the United Kingdom have the potential to impact on the protection of human rights in the UK and on the rights of others throughout the world”.
2.Justice or home affairs treaties, such as mutual legal cooperation or extradition treaties, or trade or investment deals allowing businesses special access to markets or the export of goods that could be used in human rights violations could all have the potential to impact human rights. The rights involved might be the rights of workers, the right to be free from servitude and forced labour, the right to a fair trial and the right to privacy of data as it passes across borders. However, different human rights considerations may apply to different types of agreement, so there could be a benefit in having tailored approaches to protecting rights in specific areas.
3.Currently, many of the international agreements binding the United Kingdom are made by the EU, which includes human rights clauses in international agreements as a matter of routine. International agreements made by the EU are scrutinised during the negotiation process both by the European Parliament, and the UK Parliament, through the European Scrutiny Committee in the Commons and the European Union Committee in the Lords. When the United Kingdom leaves the EU, the UK will be responsible for negotiating all its international agreements, including in areas such as trade where such negotiations were previously conducted by the EU. In preparing for Brexit, there will be an increased need for scrutiny of UK international agreements. It is therefore imperative that we consider whether UK practices are adequate to ensure that the UK’s international agreements respect the human rights of people in the UK as well as international human rights standards more generally.
4.The JCHR therefore launched an inquiry into how best to ensure compliance with human rights standards in international agreements and whether the parliamentary scrutiny of human rights compliance of these agreements should be improved. There is little regular scrutiny of international agreements that the UK negotiates. Government is not currently providing Parliament with adequate information in relation to human rights compliance of these agreements and moreover, Parliament is not very active on this topic. But we now have an opportunity to improve this system. Specifically, we considered:
a)The internal Government processes and safeguards that are needed to ensure that human rights are adequately protected when the Government is negotiating agreements;
b)The level of information that the Government should provide to Parliament about human rights protections in international agreements to enable adequate parliamentary scrutiny;
c)The parliamentary process for scrutinising international agreements for human rights compliance;
d)Whether there should be standard human rights clauses to protect human rights in international agreements; and
e)What processes are needed to monitor human rights compliance in the implementation of international agreements.
5.We issued a call for evidence on 13 December 2018 and received 21 written submissions. We also heard evidence from Dr Lorand Bartels, Dr Sam Fowles, Dr James Harrison, Richard Jones, and Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon. We are grateful to all those who responded to our call for evidence and those who gave evidence orally, as well as those who drew our attention to other information. We are also grateful for the further information provided by the Minister in his letter of 3 February 2018 and which can also be found on the website.
6.We are very much aware that there is ongoing wider parliamentary work relating to parliamentary scrutiny of international agreements and we wish to complement that other work. This work includes:
a)The Foreign Affairs Committee’s Recent Report, “Global Britain: Human Rights and the Rule of Law”, which recommended at paragraph 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.”
b)There is ongoing work by the House of Lords Constitution Committee into how Parliament should scrutinise international agreements post Brexit. Appendix 1 contains a letter we received from the Chair of the House of Lords Constitution Committee, informing us that they are undertaking an inquiry exploring how Parliament should scrutinise treaties after the UK leaves the European Union.
c)The International Trade Committee has also been looking into how Parliament should scrutinise international agreements post Brexit in its Report “UK Trade Policy, Transparency and Scrutiny”, as well as considering future UK trade policies with specific third countries. In addition, the International Trade Committee is currently undertaking two relevant inquiries: the “UK Investment Policy” Inquiry and the “UK Department for Trade’s Support for Exports” Inquiry.
d)The Procedure Committee has corresponded with the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union making the point that the Government “ought not to assume that existing arrangements will in all cases be sufficient to handle the requirements of treaty scrutiny” in future.
e)As part of the inquiry into select committee effectiveness, the House of Commons Liaison Committee is looking at how the UK’s future relationship with the EU might have an impact on select committees, including consideration of treaty scrutiny. This also fulfils the request made of the Liaison Committee by the Exiting the EU Committee to “examine the role of parliamentary committees in scrutinising treaties after the UK leaves the EU and consider proposals for a dedicated committee on treaties”. In addition, the Prime Minister has told the Liaison Committee that it would be helpful to have its input into Parliament’s role in developing the negotiating mandate for future UK-EU relations.
f)The JCHR itself has previously adopted a position on human rights provisions in international agreements in the Report “Human Rights and Business 2017: Promoting responsibility and ensuring accountability”:
“We welcome the Government’s commitment that new bilateral trade agreements will include human rights protections at least equal to those currently included in EU trade agreements. We look forward to seeing this adhered to and will monitor progress with interest.
We encourage the Government to use the opportunity of Brexit to set higher human rights standards in future trade agreements, to include workable provisions on enforcement, and to undertake human rights impact assessments before agreeing trade agreements.”
7.There is, rightly, a great deal of parliamentary attention on how best to engage with scrutiny of international agreements. Other committees have interests, and there are bodies who are better placed to consider what system will meet the needs of Parliament as a whole. We do not wish to pre-empt their work by proposing an overarching system for Parliament, but focus instead on what is needed to ensure proper scrutiny of human rights. We have, however, included suggestions from our witnesses in the report, and all our evidence is published online, available to colleagues working on the wider picture. If Parliament is to do more, and more systematic, scrutiny of international agreements, that scrutiny will need to be properly resourced.
1 NIHRC ()
2 A list of those who contributed is included at the back of this Report and all written submissions we received can be found on our website.
3 Foreign and Commonwealth Office ()
4 Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Thirteenth Report of Session 2017–19, , HC 874
5 International Trade Committee, Sixth Report of Session 2017–19, , HC 1043
6 Correspondence with Mr Charles Walker OBE MP, Chair of the Procedure Committee, and Rt Hon Steve Barclay MP, Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union,
7 Joint Committee on Human Rights, Sixth Report of Session 2016–17, , HC 443 / HL Paper 153, paras 238 and 239. The Government Response to these recommendations can be found in Appendix 2 and committed to supporting human rights.
Published: 6 March 2019