Trading away human rights

Imagine a government agency that adopts human rights standards that don’t apply to a majority of its transactions.  Imagine a government agency that systematically ignores the recommendations of Parliamentary Committees that have conducted inquiries into its operations. 
 
Well, the UK has such an agency - UK Export Finance (UKEF).
 
It exists to support UK exporters in cases where the private market refuses to because of the risks involved.  It has been operating below the radar for a number of years, avoiding the kind of scrutiny that is overdue because its activities have far-reaching implications for human rights, development and the environment.
 
Today Amnesty International is publishing a briefing on UK Export Finance, which highlights how, despite numerous Select Committee and Inquiry reports over the last five years recommending reforms to make it more transparent and accountable, successive governments have rejected those recommendations.
 
Because of those rejected reforms, UKEF is still working to the weak international standard for export credit agencies, the OECD’s ‘Common Approaches’. This means that the only transactions, which are potentially considered for human rights and environmental impact assessment have to hit the following criteria: be for more than £10 million; last more than two years; and not be for the aerospace or defence sectors.
 
UKEF’s recently released annual report showed that of the 138 transactions supported in the last 12 months, only eight could have been considered for human rights and environmental impact assessments.
 
UKEF’s modus operandi reflects a failure on the part of the government to give effect to the UK’s international human rights obligations. This runs counter to the State’s ‘Duty to Protect’, which is the bedrock of the international human rights system. It is also in sharp contrast to the government’s stated position that it is committed to helping British companies operate in ways that take account of human rights and avoid negative human rights impacts.
 
This is now compounded by the emergence over the last two years of the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights. These Principles were unanimously endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council in June 2011 and have been strongly supported by the UK, which is committed to developing an Action Plan to implement them.
 
The Guiding Principles are based around a simple framework of ‘Protect, Respect and Remedy’. This means the State has a duty to protect against human rights abuses by third parties, including business; that companies should respect human rights; and finally there should be greater access for victims of corporate human rights abuse to effective remedy, both judicial and non-judicial.
 
Is the UK government really committed to the UN Guiding Principles and to minimising the potential adverse impacts of UK exporters? In which case, it has the opportunity to turn that commitment into hard action by requiring UKEF to become not only a successful provider of financial support to UK exporters, but also a body that respects the rights of those affected by its decisions.
 
In addition, will the government ensure that those overseas communities that are adversely affected by the activities of UKEF’s clients will have access to effective remedies, both judicial and non-judicial? And perhaps most significantly, will it outline clear plans to hold those exporters that do not respect human rights to account, including the possibility of excluding them from future government financial support and from the opportunity to win government contracts?
 
The recommendations in our briefing together with the forthcoming publication of the government’s Action Plan on the UN Guiding Principles provides an ideal opportunity for the government to back up its fine words with meaningful action.
 
Now that the gauntlet has been thrown down, it remains to be seen whether the government’s human rights commitments will be found wanting with regard to the activities of UK exporters.

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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.
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