Dominic Raab tells UK officials to trade with countries which fail to meet human rights standards in leaked video

Amnesty International accuses him of ‘throwing human rights defenders to the wolves’

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Wednesday 17 March 2021 02:38 GMT
Raab tells UK officials to trade with countries which fail to meet human rights standards in leaked video

Foreign secretary Dominic Raab has been accused of throwing human rights campaigners in repressive states “to the wolves” after he said the UK will seek trade deals with countries which do not meet international standards on the issue.

In a leaked video call with staff in the Foreign Office (FCDO), Mr Raab said that Britain would miss out on trade with future “growth markets” if it insisted on dealing only with countries which meet the standards of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Amnesty International said his comments would “send a chill down the spine of embattled human rights activists right across the globe”.

But the Foreign Office insisted his words had been taken out of context, and that he had gone on to speak about the importance of exerting influence to secure a change in behaviour.

The foreign secretary’s comments emerged shortly after the release of a new foreign policy document which set out Boris Johnson’s plans for an “Indo-Pacific tilt” away from traditional partners in Europe and was criticised by senior Tory backbenchers for failing to take a tough enough line with China over abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

In the video question and answer session with FCDO staff, a recording of which was obtained by the HuffPost website, Mr Raab can be heard saying: “I squarely believe we ought to be trading liberally around the world.

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“If we restrict it to countries with ECHR-level standards of human rights, we’re not going to do many trade deals with the growth markets of the future.”

Amnesty International UK director Kate Allen said: “This apparent willingness to sacrifice human rights at the altar of trade is shocking, but sadly unsurprising. It fits a depressing pattern on human rights from this government.

“Trade is obviously important to all nations, but the foreign secretary shouldn’t be throwing human right defenders to the wolves like this. 

“So-called ‘growth markets’ - countries like India, Indonesia or Brazil - are often precisely places where human rights protections are fragile and under threat.

“And in some countries such as Myanmar, the army has control of economic activity which directly funds its military operations, including those implicated in human rights abuses.”

It is understood that Mr Raab went on to say: “We don’t junk whole relationships because we’ve got issues – we have a conversation because we want to change the behaviour. And I think we’re in a much better position to do that if we’re willing to engage. 

“There will be moments, and I can think of behaviour that would cross the line and render a country beyond the pale. But fundamentally I’m a big believer in engaging to try and exert positive influence even if it’s only a moderating influence.”

But Ms Allen warned that any trade which arises from or contributes to human rights violations “can never be sustainable” and called on the government to subject all trade deals to proper human rights impact assessments.

A Foreign Office spokesperson said: “We regret that this audio has been deliberately and selectively clipped to distort the foreign secretary’s comments. As he made crystal clear in his full answer, the UK always stands up for and speaks out on human rights.

“In his full answer, in an internal meeting, he highlighted examples where the UK has applied Magnitsky sanctions and raised issues at the UN regardless of trade interests, and that this was a responsible, targeted and carefully-calibrated approach to bilateral relations.”   

James Cleverly, the Foreign Office minister, was asked about Mr Raab’s comments on BBC Newsnight. He said holding countries like China or Saudi Arabia to European rights standards as “the sole parameter” of a trading relationship was “a question that doesn’t really relate to reality”. He added: “We have trade relationships all around the world.”

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