Whoever wins the general election must continue the UK’s proud tradition of standing up for human rights

As Britain’s political parties prepare for the upcoming general election, trade, particularly in the aftermath of Brexit, will be one of several key issues on the agenda. However, it is vital that whoever is tasked with forming a government does not side-line human rights in favour of trade.

Commitments to the promotion of internationally recognised human rights, including the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) were made as the UK sought re-election to the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) in 2016. The UK is due to step down from the HRC at the end of 2019, but bilateral negotiations with states around the world post-Brexit will continue to present valuable opportunities for the UK to play a leading role in the promotion of FoRB and other human rights at a global level.

During the process of leaving the European Union (EU), the UK will seek to establish new trading relationships with countries around the world, and it is imperative that the elected government does not shy away from open and frank discussion about safeguarding human rights. 

The World Trade Organisation (WTO) estimates that over 75% of the world’s governments now participate in preferential trade agreements that include human rights components. Human rights language in trade agreements is largely a norm, so the UK should not hesitate in making human rights, including FoRB, a key component of its approach to brokering new agreements.

It is essential that human rights are at the centre of trade negotiations from the beginning. Leverage is greatest at the point at which countries first enter into dialogue with one another, rather than after agreements have been signed. Any new government must therefore ensure that it is proactive in its approach to the promotion of human rights through trade.

Once it has left the EU, the UK will have a responsibility to conduct its own detailed Human Rights Impact Assessments (HRIAs) of the countries with which it seeks to trade. These assessments must consider a country’s compliance with existing international human rights treaties, and the potential negative impacts of trade activities on human rights.

Many of the UK’s potential trading partners, such as China and India, are responsible for widespread violations of a range of human rights, including FoRB. It is important that the incoming government remembers, firstly, that there is no evidence to suggest that human rights improvements can be achieved as a ‘trickle down’ result from trade and economic development; and secondly, that it is important for the UK’s international reputation that it does not appear to be claiming to stand up for the rights of all individuals, while demonstrating a willingness to turn a blind eye to human rights violations in favour of trade at the same time.

To date the UK has at times appeared reluctant to hold trading partners to account for human rights violations. For example in 2016, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) highlighted Egypt as a country of concern due to the widespread human rights violations taking place in the country. Despite this, Egypt continued to import £6.5 million worth of UK arms, and in 2018 the two countries entered into trade talks as the UK made preparations for Brexit, while Egypt remained on the FCO’s list of human rights abusers.

If the UK is to continue championing human rights on the international stage, the in-coming government must also be willing to sanction partner countries whenever it becomes clear that human rights violations are taking place. 

In addition to moral arguments for the promotion of human rights through trade, research by the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation suggests that the promotion of FoRB also contributes to better economic and business outcomes. Among a number of factors, there is evidence that religious freedom reduces corruption, engenders peace and multiplies trust, all of which contribute to more favourable economic conditions, and the creation of a more productive potential trading partner.

The UK has a long history of championing human rights, and its voice has carried significant weight when raising concerns in arenas such as the UN Human Rights Council. It is essential that the winner of the upcoming election ensures this proud tradition continues by including human rights provisions in all trade and bilateral negotiations with other countries.

By CSW’s Public Affairs Officer, Ellis Heasley