As the Prime Minister assembled her new cabinet following the UK referendum on its membership of the European Union (EU), attention was rightly being paid to the how the new-look Government would deal with Britain’s decision to leave. Those appointed by Theresa May know that, whatever their brief, a significant proportion of the Government’s work will be negotiating, executing and accounting for the UK’s withdrawal from EU.
While it is understandable that this unprecedented task will be time consuming for the UK Government, this must not be allowed to supersede its obligation to promote and protect human rights worldwide.
Human Rights within the European Union
For all the debated successes and failures of the EU, what is undeniable is that its various institutions engage in significant human rights work.
The EU delegation to the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) regularly speaks with the weight of the 28 member states of the Union, promoting key thematic and country specific human rights issues. During the latest HRC session in June 2016, amongst other work the delegation supported a resolution on Syria and led a resolution condemning the death penalty in Belarus.
There is an EU Special Representative for Human Rights; the current post-holder, Stavros Lambrinidis, engages on behalf of EU member states with countries across the world which are failing to meet their international human rights obligations.
In May 2016, the European Union appointed former European Commissioner Jan Figel as its first-ever Special Envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) outside the European Union. Upon his appointment, the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, said: “The persistent persecution of religious and ethnic minorities makes protecting and promoting this freedom inside and outside the EU all the more essential…Our Special Envoy will help us in this endeavour, sharpening our focus and ensuring that this important issue gets the attention it deserves”.
Once the UK invokes article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and begins the formal and legal process of leaving the EU, it will no longer be associated with any of these important human rights and FoRB initiatives.
Human Rights outside the European Union
In addition, once it has withdrawn from the European Union, every EU treaty that had previously applied to the UK will become null and void. This includes a vast array of trade arrangements that the EU has in place for member states with some 50 countries around the world.
It is therefore not surprising that the UK Government felt the need to establish a new Department for International Trade, which among other things, will be responsible for agreeing alternative deals to replace the preferential trading conditions that will cease to apply once the country is no longer an EU member state. However, the UK Government has recently been criticised for the perception that its human rights work has been deprioritised, and the most senior civil servant in the Foreign Office declaring the ‘prosperity agenda’ ranks higher in the list of priorities. It is therefore essential that the Government is continually encouraged to ensure human rights forms an integral part of its work as it ventures into a post-EU-membership world.
Keeping Human Rights on the Agenda
It is worth noting that the World Trade Organisation (WTO) estimates over 75% of the world’s governments now participate in preferential trade agreements that include human rights components. The human rights promoted in these agreements include privacy rights, political participation, due process, access to information, cultural rights, indigenous rights, and access to affordable medicines. Since human rights language in trade agreements is clearly now the norm, the UK ought to have no compunction in making human rights, including FoRB, a key component of its approach to brokering new trade agreements once it has left the EU.
“Since human rights language in trade agreements is clearly now the norm, the UK ought to have no compunction in making human rights, including FoRB, a key component of its approach to brokering new trade agreements once it has left the EU.”
The UK’s human rights work will diminish the day it is no longer an EU member state. This is not a value judgement; it is an outworking of the UK voting to leave the Union. However, this diminution does not have to be permanent.
As the dust begins to settle on the result and plans are formulated on how the exit is to be negotiated and executed, talks have begun on there being ‘more Britain abroad’ with the opportunity of having ‘a greater global profile’. At a time when the UK will be seeking to engage overseas as never before, it is important for the government to meet the crucial challenge of incorporating the promotion and protection of human rights in its policies on every occasion.
By CSW’s Parliamentary Officer