UK quietly drops ‘human rights’ and ‘rule of law’ from list of goals in Gulf trade deal

Ministers are desperate to sign new trade deals after damaging the UK economy with Brexit

<p>Boris Johnson is welcomed by Mohammed bin Salman, crown prince of Saudi Arabia, as he arrived for talks on a £1.6bn trade deal between the UK and six Gulf nations in March</p>

Boris Johnson is welcomed by Mohammed bin Salman, crown prince of Saudi Arabia, as he arrived for talks on a £1.6bn trade deal between the UK and six Gulf nations in March

The government has quietly dropped “human rights” and the “rule of law” from its list of objectives in negotiating a trade deal with Gulf states.

The two items were included in a consultation on what the trade deal should achieve, published in October, but did not make it into the final list published this week.

It comes as civil society groups voice concern about the planned deal with the Gulf states, with the TUC and Amnesty International among organisations to sound the alarm.

The UK government’s trade policy with Europe has inflicted serious economic damage on British imports and exports – and ministers want to boost trade with regions such as the Gulf to close the gap.

International trade secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan this week met representatives of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in Riyadh to begin negotiations with the six-nation bloc, which includes Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the UAE.

But with the government keen to sign deals to make up for damage done by Brexit and score political wins, protections are already being watered down.

In October 2021 the government asked respondents what their priorities should be in a free trade deal with the Gulf, including options such as labour standards, gender equality, climate change, human rights and the rule of law.

But both human rights and the rule of law – serious concerns across the six Gulf countries – were not included in this week’s final list of strategic objectives.

International trade secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan has begun negotiations with the six-nation bloc

A Department for International Trade (DIT) source argued that it was wrong to say that human rights and rule of law had been dropped, as their inclusion as options in the consultation did not necessarily mean they would become objectives.

The rest of the list in the consultation, however, made it into the final version.

Emily Thornberry, Labour’s shadow international trade secretary, said: “Yet again, we have a government acting as though human rights and the rule of law are optional extras, to be discarded at will, rather than principles and values that are fundamental to what we stand for as a country.

“It is wrong, it is immoral, and it is doing untold damage to our reputation around the world.”

Earlier this week, as the government kicked off negotiations, Paul Nowak, deputy general secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), said the UK should not “entertain” a deal without addressing reform.

“The Gulf states’ appalling record on human rights and workers’ rights is no secret, and yet the government is rushing into trade talks, no questions asked,” he said.

Labour’s shadow international trade secretary Emily Thornberry says human rights are being treated as ‘an optional extra’

Accusing the government of “turning a blind eye to fundamental rights abuses”, Mr Nowak said the government should use its leverage “to ensure respect for fundamental workers’ and human rights”.

Mr Nowak added: “Banning trade unions, forced labour, severe exploitation of migrant workers and other labour rights abuses are all widespread – as are attacks on women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights and the oppression of marginalised communities.”

Amnesty International UK’s head of policy, Allan Hogarth, said women faced “deep-rooted discrimination” and bans on trade unions “are common” in the Gulf.

“A UK-Gulf trade deal which remained silent on these issues would be wilfully ignoring serious human rights violations,” he said.

A DIT spokesperson said: “The UK is a leading advocate for human rights around the world and the FCDO [Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office] lead on our efforts to promote universal human rights.

“It is our experience that secure and growing trade relationships can increase UK influence and help us to open conversations with partners on a range of issues, including human rights.”

Announcing the start of negotiations, Ms Trevelyan said: “This trade deal has the potential to support jobs from Dover to Doha, growing our economy at home, building vital green industries and supplying innovative services to the Gulf.”

Trade between the UK and the GCC is already worth £33.1bn, making it the UK’s seventh largest trading partner. The government said a comprehensive post-Brexit free trade deal could boost the UK economy by up to £1.6bn a year.

But even if the government is successful in signing an agreement with the bloc it is unlikely to match the hit to trade with Europe it has overseen.

An analysis by the UK Trade Policy Observatory, published in November last year, found that the UK’s Brexit losses were more than 178 times bigger than its likely gains from future trade deals.

And in March this year MPs on the public accounts committee who reviewed the evidence produced by the DIT warned that without changes it was not clear that new free trade agreements would deliver any "actual economic benefits".

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