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Human Rights Priority Countries

Volume 814: debated on Monday 13 September 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what recent representations the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has made to its counterparts in the human rights priority countries listed in its report Human Rights and Democracy Report 2020, published on 8 July; and what assessment they have made of the potential for inserting clauses on human rights into future trade agreements with human rights priority countries.

My Lords, we regularly raise human rights with our counterparts in human rights priority countries and multilateral fora. Trade will not come at the expense of human rights. Both are important parts of our relationships with other countries, including human rights priority countries. We continue to encourage all states to uphold international human rights obligations and hold those who violate human rights to account, including by using powers provided by the Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations.

My Lords, a lot of promises were made on human rights during the passage of the then Trade Bill, committing the FCDO and the DIT to work together. From the evidence we have seen so far, that is not happening. Labour’s policy report, Putting Workers First, which was published at this week’s TUC, shows that the FCDO’s concerns over workers’ rights in Colombia were not taken into account during trade negotiations. When will we see the Government keep their word? What steps will the FCDO take to ensure that future trade agreements contain human rights protections?

My Lords, as I said in my initial Answer, we will not pursue trade to the exclusion of human rights. We regard both as an important part of deep, mature and wide-ranging relationships with all our trade partners, including those in human rights priority countries. In line with our international obligations, the Government will continue to ensure a high level of protection for labour standards in new trade agreements as well.

My Lords, the report is silent on how stabilisation clauses in foreign direct investment agreements reduce the capacity of many developing countries to protect human rights. Through such clauses, corporations demand compensation if host Governments change tax, environmental or workers’ rights laws and prevent local courts adjudicating on disputes. Can the Minister explain how the Government will ensure that the clauses imposed by UK companies do not violate human rights?

My Lords, we have put the protection of human rights around the world at the heart of what we do, including through the publication of the integrated review and our presidency of the G7. On labour standards, the Government share the public’s high regard for worker protections and have made it clear that we will not compromise them; in fact, we have embedded labour objectives in the UK’s approach to proposed new trade agreements with the US, Australia and New Zealand.

My Lords, I appreciate that this is a difficult area, but I want to press the Minister a little further. In his Question, the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury, asked about inserting clauses into trade agreements. The Minister did not really respond to that. Is this because the Government have, in principle or for some other reason, an objection to inserting those clauses? How can we hope to police and implement commitments if they cannot be written down in the agreements?

My Lords, the Government are clear that more trade does not have to come at the expense of human rights. Our annual report makes that clear. We will continue to show global leadership in encouraging all states to uphold international human rights obligations. Our international obligations and commitments, including on human rights, are always of paramount importance when we make decisions on our trading relations. The Government will continue to take a balanced and proportionate approach, delivering the best outcome for the UK, maximising the benefits of trade and ensuring that we stay true to our core values.

My Lords, I quote the report on South Sudan:

“Conflict-related … rape and abduction of women and girls for sexual slavery, continued to be prevalent.”

What representations has the FCDO made to its counterparts there since the laudable visit by Her Royal Highness the Countess of Wessex last year to champion the eradication of sexual and gender-based violence, and with what results?

My Lords, we continue to make representations on this important issue. Most recently, UK officials in Juba raised human rights concerns with the deputy Foreign Minister on Friday last week, as well as with the Minister for Presidential Affairs on 16 August. We also continue to press for human rights progress, supported by robust monitoring, at the UN Security Council and the Human Rights Council, as well as through funding programmes to support victims and tackle the drivers of violence.

My Lords, although I have huge sympathy with the motivation behind the Question, does the Minister agree that human rights clauses in trade deals work best where there is high interdependence and leverage on the part of the asking party—in other words, the UK—as opposed to the trading partner? In the example of China, which is also on the list, that simply is not the case. Can the Minister tell the House how the Government are working with the United States and the EU, which are the only two powers that would have any leverage with China?

My Lords, the UK has a strong history of promoting human rights and its values globally with countries of all sizes. By having strong economic relationships with countries, we are able to have more open discussions on a range of issues, including human rights. On China, I point to the action that we have taken in relation to human rights concerns in Xinjiang. Indeed, since their inception in July last year, we have used powers provided by our Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations to impose sanctions on 78 people involved in serious human rights violations or abuses around the world.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the wonderful Belarusian musician, Maria Kalesnikava—a nominee for the Council of Europe’s Václav Havel Human Rights Prize—has been sentenced to 11 years in prison for being one of the three brave women who led the protest against the dictator Lukashenko? Will the Minister please ask the Foreign Secretary to make representations to the Belarusian authorities for her immediate release?

My Lords, we continue to raise our concerns directly with the Belarusian authorities via their embassy in London and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Minsk. We continue to speak out in international fora, including on individual cases. I will certainly pass on the noble Lord’s message and update him in writing on the individual case he mentions. We continue to follow the situation in Belarus closely and attend trials, and we have requested access to political prisoners too.

My Lords, does the Minister recall that, when we left the European Union, it was said that there would be plenty of opportunities in the Commonwealth? Given that there are Commonwealth countries that do not recognise LGBT rights, and indeed prosecute and sometimes persecute gay men and women, what sort of attitude will the Government take towards a trade deal with Nigeria?

My Lords, sadly some EU member states also do not have an unblemished record when it comes to these important rights. LGBT rights are an important part of human rights, and they feature heavily in our Annual Report; they are exactly part of the concerns and values that we wish to uphold as we trade internationally.

My Lords, respect for human rights exemplifies a civilised society, and I wonder whether the Minister might take the question of human rights one step further. Did the British Government receive any indication from our ambassador, or any other forms of intelligence, of a programme of torture and other atrocities being conducted at the Bagram base, in Afghanistan? Can he assure Parliament that no UK agency, official or military personnel was ever complicit in any such programme? Would he agree that such actions would be illegal, reprehensible, send messaging of double standards and could come to haunt the West, as retribution might be inevitable, possibly directed at those who remain in the country or increasing the likelihood of a terror campaign in the West?

The Afghan national detention facility in Parwan was an Afghan-managed and operated facility on the US military base at Bagram and was captured by the Taliban on 15 August. The Government unreservedly condemn the use of torture and remain committed to their obligations under international humanitarian and human rights law, including the UN convention against torture. All UK counterterrorism co-operation with the Afghan Government is suspended. All co-operation before August was in strict compliance with human rights standards and international humanitarian law and subject to the guidance on providing overseas security and justice assistance.

My Lords, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights says that climate change threatens the effective enjoyment of a range of human rights, including those to life, water and sanitation, food, health, housing, self-determination, culture and development. There are widespread reports that appear to confirm that binding temperature commitments under the Paris Agreement have been cut from the Australian free trade deal. How can that be reconciled with any commitment to human rights?

My Lords, the main elements of the free trade agreement with Australia were signed by the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister of Australia at a meeting in Downing Street in June. A final agreement in principle was published on 17 June and is available on GOV.UK. The deal will help us better to address global challenges together, including combating climate change. Australia and the UK have committed to a chapter on trade and the environment, which will contain provisions affirming commitments under multilateral environment agreements, including the Paris Agreement, and also to maintain and effectively enforce domestic environmental laws and policies across a broad range of issues. We have also committed to undertaking co-operative activities, including those targeted at key technologies in the transition to a low-carbon and climate-resilient economy.