Foreign Office must not lose sight of human rights agenda, MPs warn

Written by Matt Foster on 5 April 2016 in News
News

MPs says there is concern over FCO's focus in spite of boost for human rights spending – but the department says human rights will "always be a central part of our diplomacy"

MPs have urged the Foreign Office to do more to tackle perceptions that the UK is no longer treating human rights as a key focus.

Last year, parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee took evidence from Foreign Office permanent secretary Sir Simon McDonald, with the department's most senior official telling the group of MPs that human rights was "one of the things we follow" but "not one of our top priorities".

The FCO perm sec said that while human rights remained "an integral part of our work", it was less of a priority than the department's focus on the "prosperity agenda", the FCO's bid to promote economic growth and open markets abroad.


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In its latest report, the committee says it was "grateful for [McDonald's] candour", but "concerned by its implications". 

And it warns that – in spite of a funding boost for the FCO's human rights work – campaigners are concerned that there has been a shift in the way the UK responds to human rights issues.

"Perceptions and symbols matter, particularly in the context of the UK's soft power and international influence," the MPs say. "We recommend that the 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."

Last summer, the FCO announced that it was refocusing its human rights work on the three broad themes of upholding "democratic values and the rule of law"; "strengthening the rules-based international system"; and promoting "human rights for a stable world".

That marked a shift away from a focus on the so-called "6+2" approach, which prioritised freedom of expression; scrapping the death penalty; torture prevention; freedom of beliefs; women's rights; business and human rights; democratisation; and preventing sexual violence in conflict.

The FCO's Rob Fenn, who heads up its Human Rights and Democracy Department, said the new strategy would allow diplomats to "focus on the human rights issues where they can make the greatest difference" while allowing them the flexibility to respond "in locally appropriate ways".

But the committee says opinion on this shift has been "mixed" among those dealing with the FCO, with some concern over a lack of specific commitments in the new approach and its implications for implementation and accountability.

“The actual effect of this change of approach could be to lose the focus of specific human right priorities," said committee chair Crispin Blunt. "It will be important for specific issues, such as the prevention of torture or women’s rights, not to be overlooked by FCO Missions and for strategies to be developed and progress measured."

LGBT flag decision "contradicts much of the actual work and objectives of the FCO"

The MPs call for specific human rights objectives to be included in business plans for the UK's overseas network, and says staff objectives should include explicit references to human rights goals, even for diplomats not working directly on human rights issues.

The committee welcomes the decision to double the FCO's annual funding for its dedicated human rights and democracy programme – dubbed the Magna Carta Fund for Human Rights and Democracy – but warns that it could be too focused on countries in need of Official Development Assistance (ODA), with little money left to support projects in comparatively wealthy countries including Saudi Arabia, Israel and Russia.

And the MPs are also critical of the FCO's decision not to fly the LGBT Rainbow Flag during London Pride in 2015, a reversal of the policy of the previous foreign secretary William Hague, and something the committee warns has put the FCO out of step with "numerous other government departments" and "sent a message that contradicts much of the actual work and objectives of the FCO".

The report calls on the FCO to u-turn on that policy, and says embassies based in countries that display an "intolerance of equality around sexuality", should fly the Rainbow Flag alongside the Union Flag on the dedicated International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia.

Blunt: It is "extremely difficult to hold the Foreign Office to account for its spending"

Elsewhere in the report, the committee urges the FCO to take a leaf out of the Department for International Development's (DfID) book when presenting its annual human rights and democracy report.

While the report has won plaudits from some human rights groups for helping to open up the FCO's work to scrutiny, the committee says more could be done to make the document accessible and user-friendly.

The MPs point to DfID's online development tracker – which is regularly updated to allow taxpayers to see where aid spending goes – as an example the FCO could emulate.

"In the absence of measurable targets for the department’s human rights and democracy work, it is extremely difficult to hold the Foreign Office to account for its spending and to assess whether projects deliver value for money," said Blunt. 

"We will keep the FCO’s human rights work under review over the course of this parliament to ensure that it receives the focus that it requires.” 

Responding to the committee's report, foreign secretary Philip Hammond said he did "not recognise this characterisation of our human rights work".

He added: "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 £10 million – a true measure of the importance we attach to this agenda.

“By mainstreaming human rights within the Foreign Office, we have ensured it will always be a central part of our diplomacy, delivering tangible results.”​

The FCO received a better-than-expected settlement at last year's government-wide Spending Review. Having modelled cuts of between 25% and 40% to its day-to-day spending, the department was ultimately spared the axe, with the Treasury opting to protect its budget.

As part of that deal, the FCO has vowed to make £53m-worth of administrative savings over the course of the parliament, with McDonald currently leading a review dubbed "Future FCO" to help the department become "more expert, more flexible and more forthright".

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Matt Foster
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Matt Foster is deputy editor of Civil Service World. He tweets as @CSWDepEd

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