UK General Election: an opportunity to reiterate a commitment to human rights

Coming less than a year after the EU referendum, the UK’s snap General Election on Thursday will provide a fresh opportunity to ensure human rights are at the heart of government policies.

Amid competing priorities, it remains important that the new government pledges to uphold the UK’s commitment to human rights, including the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in all aspects of foreign policy, including diplomacy, international aid and trade.

Freedom of Religion or Belief matters

According to the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), the state of international religious freedom is worsening in both the depth and breadth of violations. Its new report states:

“the blatant assaults have become so frightening—attempted genocide, the slaughter of innocents, and wholesale destruction of places of worship—that less egregious abuses go unnoticed or at least unappreciated.”

Against this backdrop, it’s increasingly important that the government shows its commitment to protecting this right. It must speak with boldness in challenging FoRB violations and allocate adequate resources, in addition to using its diplomatic and political capital, to address them.

Multilateral Promotion of FoRB

As part of the UK’s re-election campaign to the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) in 2016, the country pledged to promote the right to FoRB. The government stated that it will encourage the full use of UN processes, including the Human Rights Council’s (HRC’s) Universal Periodic Review (UPR) Process, UN Special Procedures and Treaty Body mechanisms to raise cases where FoRB violated.

This is a very welcome and significant pledge as some reservations and misconceptions about this right continue to be raised in international platforms. When it comes to reviewing the human rights records of different countries through the UPR process, recommendations on how to improve the situation FoRB barely feature; comprising less than 2.5% of the total of human rights recommendations, according to UPR Info.

Ensuring that the promotion of FoRB is strongly visible in British foreign policy and promoted through all potential channels – including at the UN and in bilateral discussions with other nations, remains of paramount importance.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s already does much to promote FoRB through public diplomacy, for example by monitoring and raising FoRB violations with governments and by organising initiatives such as 2016’s two-day summit exploring how FoRB can help to prevent violent extremism. The FCO also supports civil society’s FoRB initiatives through Magna Carta Fund for Human Rights and Democracy. While this should continue, more can be done.

Does the prosperity agenda trump human rights?

It is obvious that trade will be at the forefront of upcoming bilateral dialogues between the UK and other nations. The World Trade Organisation (WTO) estimates over 75% of the world’s governments now participate in preferential trade agreements that include human rights components. Due to the significant impact on human rights, trade agreements require careful human rights impact assessment.

A robust commitment to human rights and FoRB must remain integral to any post-Brexit trade negotiations the UK undertakes.

Case Example: China

In China, one of the UK’s key trading partners, FoRB has continued to deteriorate under President Xi Jinping and the effect is felt by a range of religious groups.

Demolitions and evictions have taken place at Larung Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institution in Sertar, Sichuan Province where hundreds of homes have been demolished. The large Christian population in Zhejiang province in south-east China has also been targeted; since early 2014, the authorities have removed hundreds of crosses from churches in the province, in some cases destroying part or all of the church at the same time. The Falun Gong, a spiritual movement, are banned. There has been a widespread crackdown against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province, where restrictions have been placed on their social and cultural practices in the name of national security.

While the UK has raised concerns about human rights in China, for example at the UN Human Rights Concil, the government has failed on a number of occasions to go on the record publicly to address human rights concerns as part of its trade negotiations with China. For example, in September 2015, the then-Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, was praised by Chinese media for focusing on business ahead of human rights during his visit to Xinjiang.

The UK should not shy away from open and public discussion about human rights, one of the UK’s cherished values, and one which should underpin the government’s engagement with China and other partners. And while human rights should be promoted as a matter of principle, recent analysis also suggests that the promotion of FoRB contributes to better economic and business outcomes.

Held to Account: The Role of Civil Society

How can this be done in practice? The UK has multiple tools at its disposal. The ‘UN Guiding Principles on Human Rights Impact Assessment of Trade and Investment Agreements’ could be used to ensure a full and comprehensive human rights impact assessment of trade and investment agreements. Civil society can also help; consultation with human rights organisations prior to any trade consultations should be encouraged as modelled by Germany’s Minister of Trade, who has reportedly consulted human rights organisations before beginning trade negotiations with Iran.

As a civil society organisation CSW will continue to work with and provide information to the new government and parliamentarians alike. We will also to continue to remind them of the importance of addressing FoRB situations in a holistic and effective way.

As a nation whose heritage includes the Magna Carta and whose voice championing human rights in international platforms carries significant weight, the UK should seek to ensure that human rights concerns, including FoRB violations, are effectively addressed and remain on the record – both in international fora and in any trade and other bilateral negotiations with other countries.

By Sini Maria Heikkila, CSW’s Public Affairs Team Leader.