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Human Rights: Trade Deals

Volume 699: debated on Tuesday 20 July 2021

What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on inserting clauses on human rights in future trade deals. (902997)

What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on inserting clauses on human rights in future trade deals. (903004)

What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on inserting clauses on human rights in future trade deals. (903008)

FCDO Ministers are in regular contact with Cabinet colleagues on a range of trade-related issues and we are clear that more trade does not have to come at the expense of our commitment to human rights. The UK will continue to show global leadership in encouraging all states to uphold international human rights obligations and will hold to account those who violate human rights. Since the inception of the Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations 2020, we have used those powers to impose sanctions on 78 persons involved in human rights violations. The UK has a strong history of protecting human rights and promoting global values. By having a strong economic relationship with partners, we can have more open discussions on a range of issues, including human rights. We continue to take a balanced and proportionate approach with partners to deliver the best outcome for the UK and to maximise the benefits of trade, while ensuring that we promote our core values.

The UK has a free trade agreement with Colombia that contains a human rights clause, but we have just heard that in recent months protesters in Colombia have faced brutal violence at the hands of Colombian police, with human rights organisations documenting 43 protesters potentially killed by the police. Given those abuses, and the Colombian Government’s repeated attempts to deny and minimise the crisis, will the UK Government signal their commitment to human rights and, rather than turn a blind eye, ensure that this human rights clause is actually upheld?

Colombia is an FCDO human rights priority country, and we take the growing reports of violence against social leaders and human rights defenders extremely seriously. We consistently raise our concerns with the Colombian Government and in multilateral forums. The point that the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), has just made is still very much the case. When we export our products and services, we also export our values and buy the right to have serious conversations with partners around the world.

Will the Minister confirm here and now that it is our foreign policy to defend human rights and the rule of law across the world? Does he agree that, as well as putting UK businesses with high human rights and labour rights at a disadvantage, signing trade agreements with some of the world’s worst human rights abusers without any human rights clauses undermines that policy and our global reputation?

The UK is proud to be incredibly vocal on the international stage about our commitment to human rights. As I have said, having an open and expansive trade policy is not any kind of contradiction to our passion for promoting human rights. If the hon. Member has particular concerns about forthcoming trade agreements and the human rights elements thereof, please feel free to write to the Department.

During an Adjournment debate earlier this year, the Minister for Trade Policy justified the deal with Cameroon on the basis that there had been a reduction in human rights abuses against its own people. Next day in the House, the Under-Secretary of State for International Trade, the hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena), refused to confirm whether he was right or wrong. So can this Minister tell the House what level of abuse the Government are prepared to accept with similar oppressive regimes to grant them a trade deal with the UK?

We continue to monitor the situation in Cameroon closely. We raise our concerns directly with the Cameroonian Government and within multilateral forums calling for an inclusive dialogue and the end to violence. As I say, the Government have always been clear that increased trade will not come at the expense of our values and, specifically, will not come at the expense of our commitment to human rights. We want to have trade relationships with countries around the world, but ultimately the foundation stone on which all Government activity is built is our commitment to human rights.

I spent 16 years in the European Parliament scrutinising and voting on trade policy. Trade policy is not just about trade; it is an opportunity to raise standards on the environment, human rights and elsewhere. It is therefore really concerning that, in 179 pages, the Department for International Trade’s 2021-22 statement makes no mention of human rights, slave labour or workers’ rights at all. This is a missed opportunity. SNP support for future trade deals cannot be taken for granted—it was not in the European Parliament, as often we did not find them ambitious enough. In a constructive spirit, I urge that we have an FCDO statement to ensure co-operation between the two policy areas so that future trade deals can raise standards in these vital areas.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving us due notice that the support of the SNP for future trade arrangements cannot be guaranteed. I had kind of worked that out by myself, because over the past 15 years the SNP has never backed a trade agreement anywhere. There is, no doubt, always a reason for SNP Members to say no to trade agreements. To return to the broader point, our commitment to human rights is a foundation stone of our foreign policy and our “force for good” agenda in the world. We will ensure that we use our trade relationships not just to export products and services but to export our principles and values. He is right that that should be an inherent part of all trade agreements, and indeed it is, but ultimately, given that the SNP will be looking for an excuse to say no to a deal, he, I am sure, will always find one.