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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.

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.

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.