UK government to be held to account over human rights record
Update 16 April: Yesterday’s launch was interesting and it was good to hear the Foreign Secretary highlight progress on the UK’s Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative, particularly the recent G8 Declaration
We were also pleased that the Foreign Secretary used his speech to highlight successes like the Arms Trade Treaty as well as serious human rights issues in countries like Syria and Egypt, which we are also very concerned by.
It was clear that one of the UK’s priorities for this year is to get re-elected to the UN Human Rights Council. Strengthening international human rights systems (including the Council) is an essential part of promoting human rights and we would like to see the UK deliver on its pledges as it has been a strong member in the past.
However, it was disappointing to see the Foreign Secretary later pass off a question about domestic human rights protections ('there will be debates ahead of the next general election'). It would have been good to see him speak up strongly on human rights for people in the UK. Human rights are universal and, as I outlined below, the UK’s international human rights credibility is affected by what it does at here at home.
We were happy to hear Baroness Warsi (the Foreign Office Minister responsible for Human Rights) said that business could be a lever for the promotion of human rights, and that business and human rights aren’t mutually exclusive. Although she did not say exactly how or when we could expect their business and human rights strategy…
Today the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office launches its human rights report, we’ll be there to hear what the government thinks its key human rights achievements were in 2012.
This won’t grab many headlines (and we’re *fairly* sure Angelina Jolie won’t be there), but it’s an important opportunity to hold the UK government to account for its human rights record. So we’re going to make the most of it.
The government has said that 'the promotion and protection of human rights is at the heart of UK foreign policy' with a consistent approach to human rights issues, so we’ll be reading the report with interest to see if the government has made any concrete improvements to match this commitment.
What we’ll be keeping an eye out for:
The government has placed priority on trade, so it’ll be interesting to see if the strategy on business and human rights is anymore ‘forthcoming’ than it was last year, particularly given concerns we raised then about UK commercial relations with Bahrain and Saudi Arabia
We’re also concerned about the continuation of the government’s ‘deportation with assurances’ policy. Assurances from countries like Jordan and Ethiopia that they will not torture those returned simply aren’t worth the paper they are written on. We still fully believe that this practice is inconsistent with the UK’s commitment to absolute prohibition against torture. And we’re still waiting for the report from the UK detainee inquiry which was scrapped in January 2012.
What they’ve got right:
The UK has made several important international human rights commitments over the last year. Highlights include:
- Securing the first ever global Arms Trade Treaty;
- Increasing recognition for women’s rights issues in Afghanistan;
- Signing the Istanbul Convention, making forced marriage illegal in England and Wales;
- Leading the way for the Preventing Sexual Violence in conflict Initiative.
Whilst these are great commitments, we’ll be looking for any information in the report about how the government intends to actually implement them. We want to see clear benchmarks and indicators set - including setting timelines around signing and ratifying treaties.
We need these targets because they’re essential for the government to demonstrate the UK’s human rights impact.
What they’ve got wrong:
Of course, we’re all too aware that the UK’s human rights record isn’t just about the content of the report. We’re concerned not just by some of what is included, but also (almost more) by what isn’t. And the lack of consistency between human rights policy at home and abroad is an ongoing issue.
Over the last year, there have been several concerning developments in changes to UK legislation. These include:
- The Justice and Security Bill, which could allow the government to hide the truth and leave victims of abuses in the dark;
- The Legal Aid Bill which makes it almost impossible for victims of human rights abuses by UK companies overseas to get justice;
- Ongoing attacks against the UK’s own human rights protections, such as the Human Rights Act.
These moves don’t only affect human rights for those of us living in the UK; they also undermine the credibility of the UK in raising concerns internationally and can also set dangerous precedents for other countries.
What is the human rights report?
The original human rights report was published in 1997 by Robin Cook, then Foreign Secretary. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office continues to publish one every year since.
Unlike the USA’s Human Rights Report or our own Annual Report (our 2013 report is due at the end of May), the UK’s report won’t cover every country. Instead it covers a selection of countries which meet its criteria to be classified as a ‘country of concern’.
Once launched, the report is subject to a parliamentary inquiry conducted by the House of Commons’ Foreign Affairs Committee.
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.