MPs criticise UK government policy on human rights

[8 April 2016] The Foreign Affairs Committee has published a report criticising the UK government over its approach to human rights. The report questioned “how energetically the Government is raising human rights issues” adding that there is a “perception” the Foreign Office has deprioritised human rights, citing China as an example.

House of Commons logoThe report, published on 5 April 2016, is the result of an inquiry into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s administration and funding of its human rights work overseas. It follows the admission in September 2015, by the Foreign Office’s top civil servant, Permanent Under-Secretary Sir Simon McDonald, that human rights was “not one of [the FCO’s] top priorities” and that “the prosperity agenda is further up the list”.

In its report, the Committee stated that it “was disappointed by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State’s choice of language on this occasion and others, which raises questions about how energetically the Government is raising human rights issues.”

The Committee noted that Minister of State, Baroness Anelay, “strongly rejected the suggestion that the FCO has deprioritised human rights” but added “the written evidence that we received indicates that there is plainly a perception that this has occurred.”

In its conclusions, the Committee stated, “Perceptions and symbols matter, particularly in the context of the UK’s soft power and international influence. 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.”

The Committee also stated that it plans to further scrutinise the FCO during the current parliamentary session, including “specific thematic and country inquiries on areas of immediate concern”. 

In response to the report, Foreign Minister Philip Hammond said, “I do not recognise this characterisation of our human rights work.” He added, “By mainstreaming human rights within the Foreign Office, we have ensured it will always be a central part of our diplomacy, delivering tangible results.”

However, The Guardian was scathing of the UK government’s policy on China and human rights. In an editorial on 6 April, The Guardian said, “… there can also be little doubt that some of the cuts that have been imposed on the FCO have helped to shift policy priorities away from human rights. That approach has been particularly well documented in relations with China, where the drive for Chinese inward investment has been allowed to swamp every other consideration.”

The Guardian concluded, “The answer is not, as the government seems to think, to downgrade human rights… It is to try as hard as possible to do the right thing ethically – even, or especially, when the cost is high.”

The Foreign Affairs Committee, made up of a panel of 11 MPs, received evidence from NGOs, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Tibet Watch, Foreign Office officials and Minister of State Baroness Anelay.

Tibet Society will be urging the Foreign Affairs Committee to hold an inquiry on Tibet as an area of immediate concern. 

In recent years, securing trade deals with China has supplanted the UK government’s concern for human rights in China and Tibet. The language from Ministers often reflects Chinese government policy, rather than upholding universal values of human and civil rights; the UK government’s policy on Tibet being the most obvious case in point, which now includes the phrase “[the UK] does not support Tibetan independence”. Not only has the previous policy of calling for “genuine autonomy” for Tibet seem to have disappeared, the current policy undermines Tibetans rights to self-determination and freedom of expression.

Further reading: 
5 April: Foreign Affairs Committee report (PDF document, 28 pages)
5 April: Foreign Secretary comments on the Foreign Affairs Committee report on human rights (    
5 April: Ministers’ language ‘undermines human rights work’, MPs say(BBC)
6 April: View on human rights and foreign policy: do the right thing, not the easy one (The Guardian)


Tibet Society, the world’s first Tibet support group, was founded in 1959. Funded by its members, it has been working for over 50 years to seek justice for Tibet through parliamentary lobbying, campaigns and actions. Help keep Tibet alive by joining Tibet Society today. Annual membership £24; Family £36; Life £500.


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