A foreign affairs select committee has accused the UK Foreign Office of not doing enough to show it is taking its human rights responsibilities seriously.
A new report published by a group of MPs says dealing with human rights issues at ministerial level has become more about “box-ticking” rather than meaningful consultation, and said the actions (or inaction) of the Foreign Office has created the perception that human rights have become downgraded.
In particular, the committee expressed concern over the government’s failure to place Bahrain and Egypt on its list of human rights priority countries.
Both states have been accused of breaching various human rights conventions in recent years. A report published by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in November said torture had been routinely used to interrogate detainees in Bahrain, while according to the same group torture, mass execution and the persecution of journalists are chronic problems in Egypt.
The all-party committee, which was chaired by Conservative MP Crispin Blunt, said:
While ministers say they have not deprioritised human rights, the written evidence received by the committee as part of its inquiry indicates there is plainly a perception that its status in the Foreign Office’s work has been downgraded. Perceptions and symbols matter, particularly in the context of the UK’s soft power and international influence.
It added: “We recommend that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) is more mindful of the perceptions it creates at ministerial level, especially when other interests are engaged such as prosperity and security, as is the case with China, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.”
The report, which was published last week, suggested it has also become more difficult for human rights organisations to get access to senior politicians since Phillip Hammond became foreign secretary.
Hammond, who entered the role in 2014, was quick to reject the report’s findings. He told The Guardian:
I do not recognise this characterisation of our human rights work. Improving human rights is a core function of the Foreign Office and is the responsibility of every British diplomat around the world.The UK supports over 75 human rights projects in more than 40 countries and this year we are doubling the funding available for human rights projects to £10m — a true measure of the importance we attach to this agenda.
The report isn’t the first time Hammond’s record of promoting human rights has been criticised. His relationship with Saudi Arabia — where according to human rights group Reprieve the current rate of executions is record-breaking — continues to be contentious. In January, he was condemned by multiple rights groups for refusing to fully condemn the execution of 47 people in the Islamic kingdom.