What is the Foreign Office’s policy on human rights?

Contradiction at the heart of government’s human rights policy

October 2015

There seems to be a fundamental contradiction at the heart of the government’s policy as it relates to matters such as human rights and the death penalty.  Readers of this blog will be aware that we wrote to our local MP, John Glen, on 8 June to point out that France was speaking out publicly concerning the rise in the number of executions taking place in Saudi Arabia and that Sweden had reportedly stopped selling arms there.  We noted that in the first 5 months of this year, the number of executions has equalled that for the whole of 2014.

We received a response from a FCO minister Tobias Ellwood who assured us that Saudi Arabia ‘remains a country of concern on human rights, because of its use of the death penalty as well as restricted access to justice, women’s rights, and restrictions on freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of religion or belief.’

Within days of receiving this letter from Mr Ellwood with a covering letter from John Glen, it was reported that the Foreign Office had both dropped any explicit reference to death penalty and had also dropped the very phrase used by Mr Ellwood namely: ‘a country of concern’ and replaced it with the more anodyne ‘human rights priority countries’.

We wrote pointing this out to Mr Glen on 5 August and, not receiving a reply, wrote again a month later on 14 September.

Then, on 20 September came the astonishing news that a Saudi representative was to become a member of the UN’s human rights council (The Independent).  Human rights organisations were aghast that a country such as Saudi with its record of torture, floggings, executions and so on and so on, should be elected to such a body.  No sooner had we digested this piece of news when The Australian newspaper revealed on 30 September that this election had not happened by chance but that diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks showed that the UK government had allegedly initiated the secret negotiations to enable the Saudis to get elected.  The cable apparently read:

The delegation is honoured to send to the ministry the enclosed memorandum, which the delegation has received from the permanent mission of the United Kingdom asking it for the support and backing of the candidacy or their country to the membership of the human rights council (HRC) for the period 2014 – 2016, in the elections that will take place in 2013 in the city of New York.

The ministry might find it an opportunity to exchange support with the United Kingdom, where the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia would support the candidacy of the United Kingdom to the membership of the council for the period 2014 – 2015 in exchange for the support of the United Kingdom to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

In simple terms: we will support you if you support us.  Why the UK should need the support of such a country is a puzzle in its own right but for the UK to be supporting the Saudi government for a human rights council is beyond belief.

UN Watch commented:

[we] find it troubling that the UK refused to deny the London – Riyadh vote trade as contemplated in the Saudi cable, nor even to reassure the public that their voting complies with the core reform of the UNHRC’s founding resolution, which provides that candidates be chosen based on their human rights record, and that members be those who uphold the highest standards of human rights.

On 18 September, Mr Glen replies to our second letter.  He claims the change in wording came about on the basis of feedback from diplomats who ‘reportedly had difficulty relating our long list of human rights priorities with the issues they faced in real life – from the chaos of failing states to the corridors of Geneva.’  Adopting more thematic categories makes it easier to apply pressure it is argued depending on the circumstances of the country concerned.

Rather than being ‘vague and obfuscating’ (as has been claimed) the ‘categories are sufficiently broad that diplomats can tailor them appropriately to local circumstances.’  He argues that the change of wording is ‘essentially about semantics’.   FCO ministers have been very clear, even since the change of wording, that their stance on the abolition of the death penalty remains the same, he says.   He quotes Rt Hon David Lidington, Minister for Europe:

The Government calls on all states to adopt an immediate moratorium on [the] use of the death penalty in accordance with the relevant UN General Assembly resolution, and views this as part of the process towards complete abolition.  The Foreign and Commonwealth Office will continue to use its diplomatic and programmatic tools to work towards the goal of global abortion.

Finally, he says ‘I can assure you that the change of wording is not an indication of a change in policy: the UK government will continue to work towards a complete abolition of the death penalty, using all the tools at its disposal.’

So where is the truth?

On the one hand, solemn assurances are given that government ministers are committed to the cause of global human rights, whatever the wording of their policies, which are purely a matter or semantics it is claimed.  On the other hand, a ‘trade’ was undertaken between London and Riyadh to get the latter elected onto a UN human rights body.  Assurances that ‘all the tools at its disposal’ are being used in pursuit of global abolition must be set against George Osborne’s visit to China this month where the nationalist State-run Chinese newspaper The Global Times, lauded the 44-year-old Chancellor for his ‘pragmatism’ in concentrating on business matters and not drawing attention to human rights like some other visiting western leaders.  China leads the world in executions the numbers being a state secret.  It is a serial offender on the human rights front.

On the basis of this evidence it would appear that the claimed commitment to human rights is for domestic consumption only and that the reality, when it comes to actual dealings with foreign governments, is that they seldom feature.


Human Rights Watch; The Australian; The Global Times (China); The Observer; The Guardian; The Daily Telegraph; International Business News

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