Select Committee criticises Foreign Office on human rights

The Foreign Affairs Select Committee report published today says that there is a clear perception that the human rights work of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has been deprioritised.

Conservative MP Crispin Blunt, chair of the Committee, said on this morning’s BBC Today programme “There has been a change in language and a change in symbology which would suggest it is not as important as it used to be… The current set of ministers have allowed [this] perception to gain ground…” Listen on BBC i-player (from 01:14:00)

Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond rejected the committee’s criticism, saying: “I do not recognise this characterisation of our human rights work.”

Read the report    Download the report

The Committee found that the words and actions of FCO Ministers have generated a perception that their work on human rights has become less important, despite funding for the FCO’s dedicated human rights programme, the Magna Carta Fund, having been doubled to £10.6 million.

The FCO needs to do a better job of selling its human rights work by evaluating it more effectively and presenting it in a more user-friendly fashion.

The Chairman of the Committee, Crispin Blunt MP, said:

“The actions and words of Ministers in the Foreign Office have undermined the excellent human rights work carried out by the Department. This needs to be remedied. 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. Perceptions, and the symbols that reinforce them, matter, particularly in the context of the UK’s soft power and international influence.”

Three themes of humans rights work
In August 2015, the FCO announced it would focus human rights work on three themes: democratic values and the rule of law; strengthening the rules-based international system; and human rights for a stable world.

It is not yet possible to judge the impact of this shift but the Committee is concerned about the lack of specific commitments in the three themes and the difficulties this presents for implementation and accountability.

Crispin Blunt commented:

“The actual effect of this change of approach could be to lose the focus of specific human right priorities. 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. 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. 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.”

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Freedom of Religion or Belief

Freedom of Religion or Belief is one of the 6+2 thematic priorities under the previous government now subsumed into the three themes (democratic values and the rule of law, strengthening the rules-based international system and human rights for a stable world). There is no mention of FoRB  in the Select Committee Report; neither is it represented among the cases it proposes to monitor from this point.

FoRB was mentioned by APPG stakeholder Christian Solidarity Worldwide in the written evidence presented to the Select Committee, including the following extracts:

  • The current funding and staffing levels allocated specifically to freedom of religion or belief are inadequate. While officials working on FoRB do excellent work, the resources allocated to FoRB reflect neither the increased number of global violations nor the problems caused when these violations occur over a sustained period of time. The increased and reconfigured ‘Magna Carta fund’ however is welcomed.
  • The FCO’s three new human rights priorities show a dynamic approach to how the department and all its officials can best tailor human rights work to ensure it has the most impact. While it is too early to make any informed and holistic judgement about how they operate in practice, FoRB is wholly applicable to all three, emphasizing the importance that it must be recognised as such. This unfortunately does not address the underlying problem that human rights is a decreased priority within the overall objectives in the FCO.
  • With regard to the staffing and funding, current levels allocated specifically to freedom of religion or belief in the FCO are inadequate. In answering a WPQ in March 2015, Minister of State David Lidington stated that while a number of officials spend a percentage of their time on FoRB, the FCO has only one full time desk officer wholly dedicated to FoRB.
  • While officials working on FoRB do excellent work, the resources allocated to FoRB reflect neither the increased number of global violations nor the problems caused when these violations occur over a sustained period of time. Some of the biggest issues the FCO is currently encountering, including Daesh, Al Shabaab, Boko Haram, the Syrian Civil war, and radicalisation to name a few, have at their root an element of FoRB restriction and denial.
  • While FoRB is an important human right, religion is more than just a human right. UK foreign policy, designed to promote and secure the interests of those overseas and at home, needs to account for a world where 84% identify with a religious group, and where religious leaders and religious principles play a complex and important role. One full time FoRB desk officer is insufficient resourcing to address what should be an increasingly important reference point of FCO work.
  • CSW has encountered significant discrepancies in knowledge and awareness of FoRB among staff in overseas missions. Without explicit reference to FoRB or any of the former thematic priorities, there is danger for them to all lose ground to the ‘prosperity agenda’.
  • It is perhaps too early to make an informed and holistic analysis of the impact of these new themes. It is our position however that FoRB is applicable to all three and should be recognized as such.

CSW’s full evidence

APPG officers are seeking a meeting with Crispin Blunt to discuss their monitoring of FoRB going forward.