on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office 2011 Report: Human Rights and Democracy
May 24, 2012
We believe there are a number of significant areas in which the FCO and wider UK government falls short of its declared policy commitments on human rights and of its international human rights obligations.
David Mepham, UK director

1.      Human Rights Watch welcomes the publication of the Foreign Office annual report on human rights and democracy. As in previous years, we note the clear language set out in the Foreign Secretary’s Foreword and in Section II on the FCO's Human Rights Priorities. This includes the assertion that “the promotion and protection of human rights is at the heart of UK foreign policy,” the statement that “we are determined to pursue every opportunity to promote human rights and political and economic freedom around the world,” and the pledge to raise “human rights violations wherever and whenever they occur.” These words set a high standard against which Human Rights Watch and others can and will measure the UK government’s actions and performance. As described in this submission, we believe there are a number of significant areas in which the FCO and wider UK government falls short of its declared policy commitments on human rights and of its international human rights obligations. Given space constraints, we mainly focus on these issues as opposed to areas where we agree with UK policy.

2.      The Foreign Affairs Committee has encouraged submissions to focus on the content and format of the FCO’s report, the UK government’s achievements as Chair-in-office of the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers, on the likely impact of new and updated government strategy and guidance documents on issues like torture and the death penalty, and on the cross-government strategy on business and human rights, expected to be published later in the year. This Human Rights Watch submission addresses these four areas. It also looks at FCO and wider UK government policy on women's rights and UK policy on human rights towards particular countries.

THE CONTENT AND FORMAT OF THE FCO REPORT

3.      Human Rights Watch has three overall comments on the content and format of the report. Firstly, the rationale for why countries are included or excluded from the important section entitled “countries of concern” is vague and unconvincing. The report lists a number of factors that are taken into account, including the views of embassies, high commissions and FCO country desks, whether the UK has been particularly active on human rights issues in that country and, most intriguingly, “whether its inclusion in the report might be beneficial in stimulating debate and political change.” A stronger criterion for inclusion would be whether the UK government has real influence with the country concerned, as a result of aid, trade, security or close diplomatic ties. On this basis, we propose that Bahrain, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Egypt should definitely be included, given the gravity of the human rights issues in these countries and the potential for the UK to exert influence over developments there. We note that the FCO has made some changes in respect of these countries. It is welcome that this year’s report includes a limited amount of material on all four countries in the form of short case studies, and that the FCO will start producing on-line reports on them as part of its quarterly human rights updates on the FCO website.

4.      Secondly, the report gives insufficient attention to the human rights implications of the work of other UK government departments, especially the Department for International Development, the Ministry of Defence, the Home Office, the Justice Department and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. While the FCO is the lead department for the UK government on human rights, many of Human Rights Watch's concerns about UK performance on human rights relate to the work of other UK departments, for example the lack of priority given to human rights by the Department for International Development or the fact that the UK asylum system sends Tamils back to Sri Lanka, although Human Rights Watch's research shows that some have been subsequently tortured. Yet the FCO's human rights policy is presumably meant to bind the whole government. This also applies to this country's obligations under international human rights law. At the very least, the annual report on human rights and democracy should address more explicitly and in greater detail the way in which some of these issues are handled across Whitehall, and how the FCO ensures that this country's human rights obligations are reflected in the work of the government as a whole.

5.      Thirdly, the report could benefit from a clearer statement or summary, at the beginning of each thematic and country section, which highlights the specific changes that the FCO is seeking to bring about. While many of the country sections do have a paragraph that says "the UK's human rights objectives in country X for 2011 were…", what follows is often fairly general, and could benefit from greater specificity or some concrete benchmarks. Many of the sections are still written in an overly discursive style, describing events that have happened over the course of the year that impacted negatively on the human rights situation or listing instances in which UK Ministers raised human rights concerns or met with local civil society. This information can be useful. But what would be more valuable, in terms of FCO accountability to parliament and UK civil society, is a sense of what the UK is trying to achieve on human rights in, say, Uzbekistan or the Congo, and how much progress they have made in the course of the year against these objectives (recognising, of course, that change can be very difficult, that the UK is only one player and that many factors may affect the human rights situation in a country).

COUNCIL OF EUROPE

6.      The government continues to have a highly problematic attitude towards the European Court of Human Rights, as evidenced by its agenda as Chair-in Office of the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers. Some of the government's proposals to reform the European Court of Human Rights, presented in several drafts prior to the Brighton summit, were sensible, particularly to improve implementation of court rulings by governments. But two of the proposals – to limit the jurisdiction of the court and give greater deference to governments – were problematic and would have limited access to the court, a particularly worrying development for Council of Europe countries like Turkey, Azerbaijan and Russia, where the national courts have a poor record of protecting human rights.

7.      These proposals were thankfully rejected by other Council of Europe governments, but the UK’s influential role in the Council of Europe means that this kind of political pressure on the court is only likely to increase. Moreover, the frequent criticism of the Court by UK government ministers, including the Prime Minister, especially when combined with the repeated attacks on it in the British media (with The Times on the day of the Brighton summit describing its judges in a front-page headline as “Europe’s Court Jesters”) is deeply damaging to the court and emboldens abusive governments who wish to ignore its rulings.

TORTURE PREVENTION

8.      The FAC encouraged submissions to comment on new and updated government strategies, including the Strategy for the Prevention of Torture (2011-2015). While Human Rights Watch welcomes some of the work the FCO has done on torture prevention, there are three important areas where UK policy falls short. Firstly, despite compelling evidence that some people working for the UK government have been involved in illegal rendition and torture over the last decade, no one has yet been held accountable for this. Human Rights Watch's own research has documented evidence of UK complicity in torture by the ISI in Pakistan in 2009. Just last year, Human Rights Watch uncovered documents suggesting that MI6 was involved in the rendition of two Libyan opposition figures and their families back to Colonel Gaddafi's Libya, where they were then tortured. The Libyan cases are now appropriately the subject of a criminal investigation. But a broader investigation into the UK policy failures that led to these actions has been put on hold, with the decision to halt the Gibson Inquiry. Human Rights Watch supported the decision to disband Gibson. The remit and powers given to that body were seriously deficient, with members of the security services giving evidence in secret and with no meaningful way for that evidence to be tested by those with the greatest knowledge of the abuses. In addition, decisions about the disclosure of secret material were to be made by the Cabinet Office rather than by an independent judge. However, the reference to the Inquiry in the annual report does not suggest that the FCO and the government have fully appreciated the substantive concerns expressed by NGOs, lawyers for the detainees and international human rights experts. Once the criminal investigation into the Libyan cases has been concluded, the government should move quickly to establish a genuinely independent judicial inquiry, equipped and empowered to get to all the facts and to hold those responsible for abuses to account.

9.      Secondly, Human Rights Watch is concerned that the FCO and the government are still pursuing and promoting internationally the policy of "deportation with assurances" - i.e. sending foreign terrorism suspects to countries known to practice torture, on the basis of paper commitments from those governments that these individuals will not be tortured on return. Human Rights Watch believes that such assurances are inherently unreliable, even when coupled with post-return monitoring. Rather than seeking to extend the policy, the UK government should instead be looking to prosecute terrorism suspects like Abu Qatada in British courts, while working with countries that have poor records on torture, for example Jordan, to help bring about systematic reforms to end torture that would genuinely facilitate the safe removal of terrorism suspects.

10.      Thirdly, the UK government is still apparently denying that international human rights law should apply to cases of abuse or torture by members of the British army outside of the EU. The UK's global standing on human rights is seriously damaged by such abuses. Perhaps the most notorious recent case is that of Baha Mousa who died while in the custody of the British army in Basra, Iraq in 2003. While healthy when taken into custody, Baha Mousa died there with multiple injuries from beatings. To prevent future cases, the UK Government needs to acknowledge that this was not an isolated case (later this year, another inquiry will look into the alleged torture and killing of up to 20 people in British detention in 2004, and lawyers for Mousa’s family have applied for a general public inquiry into the treatment of 140 people in Iraq, offering detailed allegations of abuse). The UK government should take steps to ensure that British soldiers always operate within the framework of international human rights law and hold account those responsible for abuses.

BUSINESS AND HUMAN RIGHTS

11.      The FCO's approach to business and human rights issues puts a lot of emphasis on encouraging companies to do the right thing and on the idea that respecting human rights can be good for business. Human Rights Watch believes that it places too little emphasis on the state's clear obligation under human rights law to protect against human rights abuses, including those involving business. To uphold this duty, the UK government should put in place appropriate measures, including laws and regulations, to ensure that UK business practice fully respects human rights standards. The report says that it will "encourage other countries - in their domestic legislation - to pursue higher standards of business accountability and responsibility". But this should also apply to the UK, not least in respect of those UK companies that operate internationally, especially in countries where human rights abuses are widespread.

12.      Human Rights Watch would like the forthcoming UK strategy on human rights and business to recognise some of the limitations of voluntary initiatives on corporate social responsibility and to strengthen the legal and regulatory dimensions of its approach to business and human rights. Specifically, we favour a mandatory requirement on companies to undertake robust due diligence processes to prevent, address, and, where needed, provide remedy for any negative impacts. Alongside this, we favour a requirement on companies to monitor and publicly report on their human rights impact, including through their relations with suppliers, contractors, security forces and business partners.

WOMEN'S RIGHTS

13.      Although the annual report says that gender equality and women's empowerment is a human rights priority for the FCO, the UK has yet to decide on whether it will sign the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, opened for signature since May last year. Indeed, in a very worrying development, the government appears to have moved backwards on this issue. In an article in the Huffington Post on May 12, David Cameron said "today we can confirm we are working towards signing the Convention, before ratifying the Treaty and so incorporating it into UK law". He also described it as a "landmark agreement". Yet the relevant part of the FCO annual report now says that a cross-government consultation has identified a number of areas that need further consideration before a final decision can be made on whether to sign the convention". No detail is provided as to the nature of these concerns. Human Rights Watch believes that this convention has the potential to make a real contribution to reducing violence against women across Europe, through promoting shelters, prevention mechanisms, protection orders and access to justice. UK credibility on these issues is very greatly undermined by its failure to move swiftly to sign this convention. Eighteen other countries have so far signed it.

14.      Human Rights Watch is also disappointed that the UK government has indicated that it has no intention of signing the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention on the Rights of Domestic Workers. The vast majority of domestic workers - cooks, cleaners and nannies - are women; and in many parts of the world they enjoy few rights and are subject to considerable discrimination and abuse. Even though it is one of the most important human rights developments of the year for women, the FCO fails to even mention the Convention in its report.

COUNTRIES OF CONCERN

The Middle East and North Africa
15.      Human Rights Watch agrees with the statement in the annual report that "the Arab Spring has brought an historic opportunity, created and led by the people of the region, to build more open, prosperous societies in the Middle East and North Africa". We believe that the UK has an important role to play in supporting local efforts - and in encouraging and pressing new governments in places like Libya and Egypt - to advance genuine democratic reforms and human rights. The UK can also be commended for some of its policy positions towards the region over the last year, for example its generally strong stand on human rights violations in Syria and Iran. But there are other instances in which the FCO and the UK government as a whole have displayed a lack of consistency or vigour in promoting human rights.

16.      On Libya, for example, we were disappointed that at the UN Human Rights Council in March, the UK did not push harder for a strong resolution, including the appointment of an independent expert to monitor human rights violations and report back to the Council. We would like the UK to press the new Libyan authorities to cooperate fully with the International Criminal Court, which has continuing jurisdiction over war crimes and crimes against humanity in Libya since February 2011. Recent developments in Libya are also of concern, including new laws that will restrict free speech, grant amnesties for crimes committed by anti-Gaddafi forces, and limit political participation based on vague terms. The FCO should be raising these issues at the highest levels with the Libyan government, as well as pressing the government to investigate rights abuses by the anti-Gaddafi militias. Human Rights Watch is disappointed that there was no reference in the Libya section to civilian casualties caused by NATO air strikes. Human Rights Watch’s research found that at least 72 civilians were killed as a result of these strikes. But NATO countries, including the UK, have not acknowledged these deaths, properly investigated them or provided compensation to the families of the victims.

17.      Human Rights Watch has been particularly critical of UK policy towards Bahrain over the last year. The section on Bahrain in the report is very weak; it continues to talk up progress, when in reality there has been almost none. The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) is mentioned, but there is no reference to its conclusion that torture by the Bahraini authorities was systematic or to the existence of a “culture of impunity.” The FCO report does not mention that the Bahraini authorities have failed to date to investigate or prosecute more than a small number of low-ranking officers for rights abuses. Nor is there any reference to the key BICI recommendation to review military court sentences and free those convicted purely for calling for political reform - a category that includes the 14 protest leaders sentenced to lengthy prison terms. There is reference to “an independent National Commission to oversee implementation of the BICI report” and to the National Human Rights Commission. The members of the first were handpicked by the King, so it is hardly independent, and the second has done almost nothing since it was established. The report's claim that “Bahrain's human rights performance has shown improvements” is not accurate, given continuing abuses documented by Human Rights Watch and others and given the failure to bring those responsible for grave abuses to account.

18.      In view of its importance in the Arab world and the seriousness of the human rights situation there, Egypt is another country that should have been included as a "country of concern". The short case study on Egypt touches on the major rights issues in the country. However, Human Rights Watch would like the UK to press these concerns more proactively, including the criminal investigation being carried out into the work of Egyptian human rights organisations (which threatens to emasculate their work), ongoing torture and ill-treatment in detention, restrictions on and repression of journalists, bloggers and activists, and the complete failure so far to hold rights abusers accountable for their crimes.

19.      Human Rights Watch also urges the UK to raise human rights concerns more assertively and publicly with the government of Saudi Arabia, especially on women's rights, its use of anti-terrorism courts to try peaceful opponents and human rights activists, as well as its treatment of minorities. The section on Saudi Arabia in the report mentions these issues, but there is little sense from this text or any other source that human rights are a high priority in UK government relations with Saudi Arabia. Yet the rights abuses there are systematic and widespread. Women in Saudi Arabia are second-class citizens. Under the "male guardianship system", they need the permission of a male relative - husband, father or brother - if they are to travel, open a bank account, access medical care or work. The UK's general reluctance to forcefully (and publicly) press Saudi Arabia on human rights issues reveals a serious double standard and weakens its overall credibility in pushing for reform across the Middle East.

20.      Human Rights Watch is critical of UK policy towards Yemen over the last year, especially the failure to assert publicly that the immunity deal for former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, his relatives, and many members of his government does not put them beyond the reach of international law, in respect of accountability for crimes against humanity, war crimes and other serious abuses. These issues are not addressed adequately in the report.

Sub-Saharan Africa
21.      Human Rights Watch Rights Watch is very concerned by UK Government policy towards Ethiopia and Rwanda. While it is welcome that the annual report has a short case study on each, the serious and continuing rights abuses in both countries are deserving of more in-depth coverage, and the UK should be pressing human rights concerns at the very highest levels and across all UK departments. One of the apparent barriers to greater UK pressure is the sense that these are development “success stories” and that to voice concerns about human rights abuses is to put public support for development at risk. The opposite is the case. While these countries have made significant and welcome progress against some important development indicators, for example in respect of access to health and education, this cannot excuse rights violations or the denial of civil and political freedoms, and support for development is put at risk where aid is misused or supports authoritarianism.

22.      The short Ethiopia case study draws attention to Ethiopia's misuse of its anti-terrorism proclamation. But the wording and tone of the section is very timid. The fact is that the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation has been used to justify arbitrary arrests of dozens of journalists and members of the political opposition. Ethiopia's highly restrictive Charities and Societies Proclamation is also seriously hampering the work of human rights organisations like the Ethiopian Women's Lawyers Association and the Human Rights Council. The case study also makes no mention of the Ethiopian government's "villagization" programme. Human Rights Watch has documented serious abuses associated with this programme and we have called on the Department for International Development - as a provider of over £300 million per annum of budget support to the Ethiopian government - to carry out a truly independent investigation into the rights abuses linked to it. Further, the routine arbitrary arrest, detention and torture of people suspected of belonging to insurgent groups in the restive provinces of Somali region and Oromia is entirely absent despite featuring prominently in other human rights reports, such as that of the US State Department.

23.      Human Rights Watch is very disappointed that Rwanda is again not regarded as a "country of concern", and that the short case study in the report is insufficiently critical of the poor human rights situation there. The report describes some recent decisions relating to freedom of expression and freedom of association, for example the transfer of responsibility for registration of political parties from the Ministry of Local Government to the independent (my emphasis) Rwanda Governance Board and reform of the Media High Council. The inference here is that these are positive developments, leading to greater political and media freedom. Human Rights Watch sees no evidence to support this, and these reforms will have little impact without political will on the part of the government. In terms of political space, nothing has changed since 2010, and opposition parties are unable to function. Similarly, repression of journalists continues, with long sentences given to those who write critical articles and with most independent journalists now living in exile.

24.      On Somalia, we were disappointed that there was not more emphasis in the report on the link between tackling impunity for serious rights abuses and greater protection for civilians. While the report rightly gives priority to developing the rule of law in Somalia, it fails to emphasise that the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) security forces are also responsible for grave human rights abuses in areas under its control. We also urge the UK to promote a more substantial UN human rights monitoring presence in Somalia, and to press all sides to hold perpetrators of human rights abuses to account, measures that would help deter future abuses. We regret that the London conference on Somalia did not reach agreement on expansion of the UN human rights monitoring presence and that the UK did not push harder for this.

25.      There is a striking and worrying omission in the otherwise comprehensive section on the Democratic Republic of Congo. Bosco Ntaganda, wanted on an arrest warrant from the ICC for war crimes, is not mentioned, although he remains at large in eastern Congo and is a major factor in the instability affecting that region. Since the report was written, there have been some important developments in relation to Ntaganda, who has mutinied along with several hundred fighters, following statements from the Congolese government suggesting an intention to arrest him. Consistent with the FCO’s strong statements on international justice elsewhere in the document, the UK should be encouraging and pressing the Congolese government to follow through on this.

Asia
26.      The Afghanistan section of the report could have benefited from greater detail in three specific areas. Firstly, on the issue of torture, the UK should acknowledge that this is not primarily about capacity building. Fundamentally it is about accountability, whether President Hamid Karzai and others will speak out unequivocally to condemn torture and prosecute those responsible for it. Secondly, regarding abuses associated with the paramilitary Afghan Local Police, we remain concerned about poor vetting of recruits and ineffective systems of accountability and urge the UK to push this issue harder with the Afghan authorities. Thirdly, while appreciating the strong statements in the report on women’s rights, Human Rights Watch would like the UK to commit to provide substantial ongoing support in this area, well after the withdrawal of UK forces.

27.      Human Rights Watch broadly welcomes the Burma section of the report, and recognises that some of the most important developments occurred in the early part of 2012 and are therefore not captured here. While Human Rights Watch appreciates the changes occurring in Burma, we urge the UK not to overstate them or to confuse statements of good intent with real improvements on the ground. While Aung San Suu Kyi and 42 colleagues from the National League for Democracy have entered Parliament, the national, state and regional assemblies remain dominated by military officers and the military-backed party. Although more than 800 political prisoners have been released since May 2011, many remain incarcerated, possibly in the hundreds. Despite ceasefires being agreed in various parts of the country, an ongoing military offensive in Kachin state has resulted in major abuses by the Burmese military against Kachin civilians. Human Rights Watch has documented forced labour, attacks on villages, unlawful killings and sexual violence. The UK should press the Burmese government on all of these issues.

28.      The section on China in the report is commendably comprehensive. It provides a generally fair description of the main human rights developments affecting the country in 2011 and it references occasions in which UK ministers and officials have raised human rights concerns with their Chinese counterparts. But Human Rights Watch remains concerned about the level of priority that the UK government gives to human rights in its relations with China. Although the report says that human rights concerns are “consistently raised” with the Chinese government, this is not always the case. Very disappointingly, on January 11, 2012, William Hague wrote a 1,500-word article for Caixin Online, describing almost every aspect of the UK/China relationship, especially the economic and business opportunities, without referencing a single concern about human rights violations. The report talks about the UK-China human rights dialogue and describes this as “our main bilateral channel for raising the full range of our concerns at senior levels.” But Human Rights Watch has seen little evidence that these dialogues have much impact in shifting Chinese policy on human rights and no specific evidence for their efficacy is presented in the report. While the report says that “we speak out when we disagree, both in public and private”, the UK appears to generally prefer the latter. While public and private diplomacy both have their place, Human Rights Watch is told consistently by China’s human rights and civil society activists that the public spotlight is often the most helpful way to strengthen their hand in their struggle against government repression. We urge the UK government to be more vocal about rights abuses in China.

29.      In the section on Sri Lanka, the FCO says that it will concentrate in 2012 on making sure that Sri Lanka implements the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). Human Rights Watch believes that the LLRC’s findings and recommendations are seriously deficient and it is a mistake for the FCO to put too much faith in this process. Instead, we urge the UK to press for an independent international mechanism to properly investigate credible allegations of war crimes by both sides during the final months of the Sri Lankan civil war in 2009, in which as many as 40,000 civilians were killed. This was recommended by the UN Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts report and is the best hope for bringing those responsible for these abuses to account. The report also says that the High Commission in Colombo has looked into recent allegations of torture and ill-treatment of failed Tamil asylum seekers on their return to Sri Lanka and has found these allegations not to be true, although very little information is provided as to the scope of its investigation. Human Rights Watch’s research, backed by medical documentation, indicates differently. We have documented many cases of torture and ill-treatment (including rape) of failed asylum seekers at the hands of government security forces. We urge the UK not to return Tamils to Sri Lanka pending an in-depth review of these cases.

Central Asia
30.      The Uzbekistan section is stronger than in previous years, covering most of the major areas of human rights concern and appropriately critical of the most egregious abuses. An exception to this is the treatment of the issue of child labour, where the tone is overly positive. Research by Human Rights Watch suggests that the problem remains very serious, with the government forcing 1.5 to 2 million schoolchildren, some as young as nine-years-old, to help with the cotton harvest for 2 months a year. They live in filthy conditions, get sick, miss school and work daily from early morning to late evening.

31.      Beyond the section in the report, Human Rights Watch is concerned about how much priority the UK government is prepared to give to rights abuses in Uzbekistan, particularly in a context where it is seeking Uzbek cooperation in the withdrawal of UK military equipment from Afghanistan. In April, comments were attributed in the Times to an unnamed FCO Minister, saying that "we are just going to have to hold our nose". Human Rights Watch expects more from a government that says that human rights are at the heart of its foreign policy. UK Ministers should be pressing human rights concerns at the highest levels - for example Uzbekistan's appalling record on torture - and using the prospect of enhanced EU economic and trade links for Uzbekistan (something that Tashkent needs and wants) as leverage to secure progress on human rights. Given the ample evidence that the human rights situation remains abysmal and in some respects is getting worse, the UK government should urgently place Uzbekistan on the agenda of EU foreign ministers and set concrete timelines by which Tashkent should fulfil key rights demands, such as the release of imprisoned rights defenders and registration of local and international NGOs. The UK should also support the establishment of a special mechanism on Uzbekistan’s rights situation at the UN Human Rights Council.

32.      The Turkmenistan section of the FCO report does not convey the gravity of the human rights situation there. As in previous years, there appears to be a conscious effort to word things as neutrally as possible and to talk up examples of progress (when they usually amount to very little). For example, the decision of the government to share information about two political prisoners is held up as a positive development and the result of coordinated lobbying, although these individuals remain wrongfully imprisoned. The report also highlights as positive that “we were still able to take forward important work in areas such as media reform, the rule of law, and transparency and openness,” but without specifying what exactly was achieved by this work. A key area of concern not mentioned in the report is the informal arbitrary travel bans imposed by the Turkmenistan government on certain individuals, including relatives of activists and political opponents. Nor does the report adequately emphasise that the country remains utterly closed to any independent human rights scrutiny.

Human Rights Watch thanks the Chairman and members of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee for their interest in these matters.