Will the Foreign Office’s New Approach Strengthen the UK Government’s Human Rights Work?

Following the Conservative party’s election win in 2015, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) took the opportunity to ‘re-configure’ their work in order to ensure the UK’s promotion of Universal Human Rights had the most impact.

Focus on Freedom of Religion or Belief under the Coalition Government

Under the Coalition Government in 2010-2015 the FCO undertook encouraging work on human rights, with freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) forming a significant part of the overall human rights programme as one of eight main thematic priorities.

Baroness Warsi, then the Minister responsible for Human Rights at the FCO, established the advisory group on FoRB, a group of experts from all faiths and none to advise the Minster on how to best protect and promote FoRB worldwide. After Baroness Warsi left her post, FoRB remained a human rights priority and the advisory group continued to meet and advise the new Minister.

Human Rights Work Reconfigured

The most significant part of the FCO reconfiguration was changing the eight thematic human rights priorities to three human rights ‘themes’. The rationale behind this was not to relegate nor promote any of the existing priorities, but instead to create overarching themes that encompassed everything the FCO human rights work does, while allowing for that work to be prioritised and developed in locally appropriate ways.

The themes are:

  • Democratic Values and the Rule of Law,
  • Strengthening the Rules Based International System,
  • Human Rights for a Stable World.

In addition to the re-configuration of human rights priorities, the FCO changed the way their annual human rights report is presented. The Foreign Secretary announced that this report will now be “shorter and punchier and cover recent developments rather than re-printing previously published material.” Furthermore, the 27 ‘Countries of Concern’ have been changed to ‘Human Rights Priorities countries’ and mid-year online updates will replace the quarterly updates which are currently published.

The rationale behind the changes is laudable and the FCO’s new approach to FoRB as part of a re-configuration of its human rights programme shows a dynamic commitment to ensuring its work continues to make an impact.

The FCO also deserves credit for doubling its Human Rights and Democracy fund to its highest ever level to £10.6 million. The new ‘Magna Carta fund’ supports projects across the globe that support the three new human rights themes.

CSW is convinced that FoRB is relevant to all three thematic categories and where this right is upheld, it can promote a positive and mutually beneficial solution to foreign policy challenges. While there were initial queries about this new approach, which mainstreams previous specific human rights priorities across the new themes, is welcomed, time should be allowed for these changes to bed in before any worthwhile judgement can be made on their effect. As such we will continue to press Ministers and the FCO, including through MPs and Peers, to ensure that adequate time and resources are specifically allocated to further the protection and promotion FoRB within the new configuration.

By CSW’s Parliamentary Officer