The Elephant in the Room: Raising Human Rights in Bilateral Talks

Since October 2015, the UK has hosted a state visit for the President of China and the first official UK visits of the President of Egypt and the Prime Minister of India.

While it is the responsibility of any government to foster good bilateral relationships, this should include full and frank discussions about human rights. The Conservative party committed to this in its 2015 manifesto where it stated:

“Our long-term security and prosperity depend on a stable international system that upholds our values… We will stand up for the freedom of people of all religions – and non-religious people – to practise their beliefs in peace and safety, for example by supporting persecuted Christians in the Middle East… and we will continue to support universal human rights.”  2015 Conservative Party Manifesto

During these visits, CSW made calls for the Prime Minister and his Government to honour their manifesto commitment and to raise the religious freedom situation in all three countries as part of bilateral talks. The Government was disappointingly quiet on human rights during all three visits, prompting many to question whether trade was being prioritised above human rights.

Are human rights being downplayed in favour of prosperity?

During a session of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, the Permanent Under-Secretary Sir Simon McDonald – the most senior civil servant in the FCO – said with regards to human rights: “although it is one of the things we follow, it is not one of our top priorities… I would dispute that it is low down, but I would not dispute that right now the prosperity agenda is further up the list.

Sir Simon did caveat his candid answer to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee with assurances that, although human rights work may not have the profile it had in the past; it is still an integral part of FCO’s work. Indeed, there are FCO staff both here and overseas who work tirelessly in promoting and protecting human rights in often immensely testing circumstances and CSW works with countless committed individuals who strive to ensure that human rights including freedom of religion or belief are always pursued.

However, the excellent work of civil servants and Ministers has to be led from the front. Public engagement from the government to the aforementioned official visits has been muted. During the visit of President Sisi of Egypt, Ministers were called to the House of Commons to answer an urgent question on the human rights record in the country. The same also happened during the State visit of President Xi of China, who has been praised in a widely criticised statement, released from the British Embassy in Beijing, lauding the progress of human rights in China. Finally, during the visit of Prime Minister Modi, the Prime Minister responded to concerns over Mr Modi’s human rights record by pointing out that he had an ‘enormous mandate from the people of India who made him prime minister with a record and historic majority’.

On International Human Rights Day, 2015, the Foreign Secretary wrote saying, “Promoting human rights is not about who can shout the loudest” and cited recent success of quiet engagement behind the scenes. A similar message was given by the Foreign Office Minister Baroness Anelay who remarked at the FCO Human Rights Day Reception, “To those who say we should simply shout louder, I say we should focus on what works.”

Taking the lead in raising human rights concerns

The focus should absolutely be the approaches that yield the best outcome for human rights. However, strong Human Rights Day statements from the United States, Canada and Germany, that, for example, highlight wide ranging concerns in China, show that unambiguous public statements and discrete, persuasive diplomacy are not mutually exclusive.

We recommend that Her Majesty’s Government ensures that human rights, including Freedom of Religion or Belief remains on the agenda, and is not side-lined in favour of “the prosperity agenda”.

By CSW’s Parliamentary Officer