The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, launched today the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s 2011 Human Rights and Democracy Report. Weighing in at 388 pages it’s a meaty affair.
Even though I don’t agree with everything in the Report, the Report’s very existence is to be welcomed. Last year the Foreign Secretary indicated that to save funds the Report would in future only be produced on-line.
The Report stands as an important record of the government’s human rights work over the course of the last year. Although an annual report can only look backwards it is a valuable tool in ensuring that there is public accountability and oversight at a time when human rights abuses across the world require Britain and others to show international leadership.
The Report deserves to be widely read. It is a helpful resource for anyone interested in Britain’s human rights record both on specific issues like freedom of religion or belief, and also particular countries of concern like Vietnam, Colombia and Uzbekistan. Interestingly and worryingly the Report lists a total of 28 countries in the ‘of concern’ category – the highest ever, with the inclusion of Fiji and South Sudan new entries to the list.
This year’s Report contains a specific section on the Arab Spring and Britain’s subsequent response. This section provides a helpful reminder of events even if the narrative presented is not always complete.
The Report makes much of David Cameron’s speech to the National Assembly in Kuwait on 22 February 2011 setting out the parameters of the UK’s approach to the Arab Spring. It omits, however, any mention that the Prime Minister was in Kuwait heading up a trade delegation to the Middle East primarily made up of arms exporters. How this fits in with the UK’s active support of a UN backed Arms Trade Treaty is far from clear.
This is not to imply that human rights should trump trade, but we do need greater clarity in the relationship between these two different strands of policy. The current strategy of using trade visits to also engage in “dialogue at all levels, including human rights,” is an obfuscation and needs revisiting. Separating out these strands of Britain’s foreign policy would allow a more structured dialogue on human rights and as well as on trade, which would be doubly advantageous.
The 2011 Human Rights and Democracy Report is in this respect a missed opportunity. Absent is any clear strategic framework to make sense of the Government’s human rights work. This makes its harder to assess the effectiveness of the work itself. The incomplete narrative also means it is difficult to gage whether and to what extent lessons have been learnt.