Government putting trade ahead of human rights - MPs

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AN INFLUENTIAL committee of MPs will tomorrow criticise the Government for "soft-peddling" in relation to its ethical foreign policy.

The Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, which includes MPs from the three main political parties, will accuse the Government of pushing human rights less stridently in countries where the UK has big trade interests, such as China.

The report will also warn that some of Britain's ambassadors are ignoring the human rights dimension of foreign policy. And it will question whether all government departments are applying the ethical policy evenly.

The report is likely to express concern about the continuation of arms sales to regimes known for human rights abuses, such as Indonesia, which is alleged to have used British-supplied arms against East Timor. It will also ask whether statements by ministers condemning human rights abuses are enough to force change. It may call for more affirmative action.

The timing of the report is acutely sensitive for the Government because of the proceedings attempting the extradition from Britain of the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, and because of the decision to bomb Iraq.

Shortly after Labour came to power the party announced that human rights would be "at the heart of foreign policy".

The select committee includes Virginia Bottomley, former Conservative health secretary, and Diane Abbott, the Labour left-wing MP. The report, which was commissioned to audit the progress achieved in 18 months of the policy being implemented, is broadly supportive of the Government's stance.

But the MPs believe that the Government may be giving out a "mixed message" about what the ethical policy means. They are expected to call for more co-ordination between government departments so that human rights principles are integrated throughout the Home Office, the Ministry of Defence, and the Department of Trade and Industry.

"It's quite a thorough report and it puts down a benchmark on a wide range of issues," said one committee member. "It looks at the way the message is getting through."

The committee questioned ministers and human rights groups before reaching its conclusions. The evidence submitted by experts was particularly critical of the Government's stance on China.

In October, Tony Blair, while on a visit to Hong Kong, was confronted by Martin Lee, leader of the Democratic Party, who mocked Britain's ethical foreign policy for being no more than an "economic foreign policy".

Amnesty International, the human rights group which campaigns to end torture and free prisoners of conscience, said that the Government's commitment to make human rights a priority was to be applauded.

"Putting human rights considerations at the heart of foreign policy came only days after coming to power," said a spokesman. "We have some concern that some government departments are taking the lead but others are not applying the policy so rigorously."