Why are ministers still ducking a debate on human rights abroad?

There are too many concerns to cover and too many issues on which ministers have been evasive for the government to refuse a full day’s debate.

Britain’s standing in the world is in part dependent upon our commitment to human rights and democracy. But sadly, MPs were this year again denied a chance to fully debate the work of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in promoting and protecting human rights abroad. This was the third year that I have replied to the annual debate in Westminster Hall on the FCO’s human rights work and the debate was, once again, highly unsatisfactory, not least because, in January 2014, we're discussing a report on the FCO’s human rights work in 2012.

Ninety minutes is not nearly enough time to cover the 27 countries of concern highlighted by the FCO’s own report, let alone discuss why the government has again left countries such as Bahrain off the list.

There are also broader global themes, such as the increasing prevalence of sexual violence in conflict, growing concern about the persecution of religious minorities abroad, regressive steps in some countries on LGBT equality and the government’s stance on business and human rights. The government's action on human rights - or lack of action in some cases - warrants the exposure and scrutiny of a full day’s debate.

So it is now time that FCO ministers agree to a debate in government time and on the floor of the House. There are too many concerns to cover and too many issues on which ministers have been evasive. The publication of an annual human rights report – which Labour introduced in government - should not be used as a fig leaf by ministers reluctant to broach difficult issues.

On Sri Lanka for example, David Cameron did eventually appear to question President Rajapaksa over his human rights record at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in November. But this was long overdue. He was forced to speak out by campaigners like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, by the Tamil community in the UK and by the Labour Party urging the government to do more in the run up to the summit.

The Prime Minister could - and should - have intervened earlier to demand President Rajapaksa comply with UN resolutions emphasising the need for reconciliation and an independent, credible investigation into alleged violations of international law, or to support the UN High Commissioner for Human Right's call for an international inquiry. Something Douglas Alexander, as Labour's shadow foreign secretary, had been calling for since 2011. Labour repeatedly urged the government to use the Prime Minister's potential attendance at CHOGM as leverage. But letters to ministers, Parliamentary Questions and debates in Parliament did not elicit an appropriate response or real engagement with the issue. 

There was further hesitation and obfuscation when it came to China. China's global importance cannot be underestimated and we value a strong relationship with the world's largest country. But the government seems determined to view China through narrow blinkers, confining our bilateral relationship to a narrow understanding of our commercial interests. A closer, more strategic relationship does not mean that we should be silent on human rights issues. Parliamentary questions that I tabled to George Osborne about his discussions on human rights during his October visit received a generic answer from a junior minister who did not even accompany him to China.

So I tried again, this time tabling questions to the Prime Minister before he left China a month later. I tabled three "named day" questions which should have been answered three days later, calling on the Prime Minister to discuss specific human rights concerns, the UK and China's roles on the Human Rights Council, and climate change during his trip.

But it wasn't until after his trip had taken place that I received just the one answer: "The government is committed to engagement with China on a full range of subjects as part of a broad and mature relationship. Nothing was off limits in my conversations in China and I raised climate change and human rights issues and agreed a new round of the UK-China human rights dialogue in early 2014." Of course it is not always appropriate in foreign affairs to relate every word of diplomatic relations, but the Prime Minister’s response implies at best that he gives a cursory mention to human rights during meetings.

An upcoming test for the government’s approach will be the Deputy Prime Minister’s visit to Colombia, a country with which the EU has recently agreed a Free Trade Agreement, but where there are still disturbing human rights violations and threats to the lives of trade unionists and activists. I believe in engagement with Colombia, in support of the peace talks and its economic and democratic development, but we must be frank when there are shortcomings and this cannot be just another Ministerial trade mission.

The Foreign Secretary once espoused a foreign policy that has "consistent support for human rights and poverty reduction at its irreducible core". The coalition must do much more to prove to Parliament and to watching NGOs that the reality matches some ministers’ rhetoric.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang accompanies David Cameron to view an honour guard during inside the Great Hall of the People on December 2, 2013 in Beijing. Photograph: Getty Images.

Kerry McCarthy is the Labour MP for Bristol East and the shadow foreign minister.

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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage