After Brexit, the Government's record on human rights needs closer scrutiny

Whitehall is now under pressure to establish new trade deals with as little delay as possible – and in order to do this, the UK may be tempted to neglect human rights

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The Independent Online

Earlier this year, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee accused the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) of “deprioritising” human rights. In the wake of the result of the EU referendum, there is a concern that human rights might be further downgraded. As a member state of the European Union, the UK is currently party to trade deals with human rights clauses written into them. But Whitehall is now under pressure to establish new trade deals with as little delay as possible – and in order to do this, the UK may be tempted to neglect human rights. 

The FCO is one of the least transparent departments in Whitehall. There are many good reasons for this lack of transparency; diplomacy often requires secrecy. Yet, the secretive nature of its work means it can be difficult to hold to account. It is tricky to establish whether the FCO has been effective in improving human rights abroad. 

Partly in response to this problem, the former Foreign Secretary, now Lord William Hague, established a human rights advisory group. The group meets the Foreign Secretary twice a year to provide guidance about human rights issues and assess the ethical implications of British foreign policy. Yet the group provides little scrutiny of the FCO to the public: it produces no reports, nor makes any public statements. 

In contrast, a number of other governmental bodies have been able to provide a good level of scrutiny. The Social Mobility Commission analyses and assesses government on progress towards improving social mobility in the UK. The commission has not been shy. Its most recent report, published in November, declared that the Prime Minister’s plan to create new grammar schools was “at best, a distraction and, at worst, a risk to efforts aimed at narrowing the significant social and geographical divides that bedevil England’s school system”. 

Other arms-length bodies such as the Migration Advisory Committee and the Office for Budget Responsibility have also been effective in holding their respective departments (the Home Office and Treasury) to account.

So why hasn’t the Government established and appointed an independent Human Rights Advisory Committee to scrutinise the FCO? Such a committee would have a number of new functions. First, it could advise and set annual targets for the FCO on human rights. The committee would then hold the FCO to account on achieving these targets through the publication of an annual evaluation report. 

The FCO currently produces its own annual report on human rights – which includes an assessment of government spending on human rights projects overseas, goals for its work on human rights, and its list of Human Rights Priority Countries. This report has been criticised, including by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, because it lacks measurable targets and over concerns that the list of human rights priority countries is politicised. 

A new Human Rights Advisory Committee should be tasked with determining the countries on that list. This would avoid allegations of bias against the FCO when allies of Britain with poor human rights records are excluded.

No End to Torture in Bahrain - Human Rights Watch

It should also advise on and assess the impact of spending through the Magna Carta Fund for Human Rights and Democracy. This pot of money is the FCO's dedicated strategic fund supporting the UK’s global human rights and democracy work. It was established earlier this year and doubled the FCO’s budget for promoting human rights to over £10m per year. Yet, while the Department for International Development’s spending abroad is closely scrutinised, the Magna Carta Fund faces very little scrutiny. The impact of this spending and its effectiveness in advancing human rights should be independently judged.

The establishment of a new Human Rights Advisory Committee would significantly improve the accountability and transparency of the FCO’s work on this important matter. This is crucial at a time when the FCO has been accused of downgrading human rights and when it will be engaging in a number of new trade agreements across the world. A new, independent scrutiny committee would allow the FCO to be more confident as it carries out its human rights advocacy. 

James Dobson is a researcher at Bright Blue