Trade can be used as a foreign policy tool – including as leverage on human rights issues. But there are two foundational principles of international trade law which dictate how this can and cannot be done.
The first, ‘national treatment’, requires that once a good or service has entered a country’s market, it should be treated equally to those produced locally. This means, for example, that once an item of clothing manufactured in Sri Lanka enters the Belgian market, the government generally cannot impose additional restrictions on the product which differ from those applied to clothing manufactured in Belgium; and there are restrictions on giving domestic companies advantages through, for example, subsidies (‘state aid’).
The second, known as ‘Most-Favoured-Nation (MFN)’, restricts countries from granting special access to only select other countries. It does this by requiring that if a country wants to grant special trade preferences to another country, it must do so for all. This means that the UK, for example, cannot unilaterally offer special exceptions to imports from India or the US without also offering them universally.
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As of 31 January, the UK has officially left the European Union, and while the exact nature of what a post-Brexit Britain will look like remains hotly debated, one thing is imperative: the UK must not relinquish its role as a leading voice in the promotion and protection of human rights around the world, including the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB).
According to a report published by the Pew Research Center in 2019, both government restrictions on religion and social hostilities motivated by religion saw a marked increase between 2007 and 2017. It is estimated that 52 governments impose “high” or “very high” restrictions on the right to FoRB, and that people experience high levels of social hostilities involving religion in 56 countries of the198 countries that were monitored.
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Against this backdrop, it is vital that the UK demonstrates a firm commitment to protecting this right. The government must speak boldly when challenging FoRB violations, raise FoRB in multilateral fora and sufficiently resource the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to raise FoRB in bilateral and multilateral meetings.
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.
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June 2018 marks five years since the European Union (EU) Foreign Affairs Council adopted Guidelines on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB). This anniversary provides an opportune moment to reflect on how the Guidelines are being used and whether they are fulfilling their intended function.
It is encouraging that FoRB has risen so significantly on the EU’s foreign policy agenda since 2013, but there remains substantial room for improvement. In particular, to ensure better implementation of the guidelines emphasis needs to be placed on increasing EU efforts to train officials on FoRB and on monitoring violations in countries worldwide.
Diplomacy works well until it doesn’t
The EU FoRB Guidelines were the result of a complex drafting process involving broad consultation with civil society specialising in this field of human rights including CSW and negotiated compromises between EU member states. They commit the EU to mainstreaming FoRB in its external human rights policy and identify practical steps EU institutions and member states should take to prevent and address FoRB violations in a “timely, consistent and coherent manner.” The text strongly affirms that the EU is “determined” to promote FoRB as a core part of the indivisible human rights landscape and free from alignment with any particular religious or non-religious agenda.
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Prime Minister Theresa May’s first official visit to China, which begins today, is billed as an opportunity to boost trade with an important ally. But it will also take place against the backdrop of the country’s violations of fundamental human rights, including freedom of religion or belief.
In the last month, Christians have been detained, and unregistered churches shut down or destroyed ahead of the implementation of revised Regulations on Religious Affairs, which strengthen state control over religious activities in China.
Unregistered churches, sometimes called house churches, are independent churches which have not registered with the state-sanctioned Three Self Patriotic Movement. The new regulations are due to come into force tomorrow, giving Mrs May a rare opportunity to speak directly to the Chinese government and publicly to reiterate the UK’s commitment to defending human rights.
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