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The Foreign Office Needs to Raise the Profile of Human Rights, Says Foreign Affairs Committee

05/04/2016 08:39 | Updated 05 April 2016

Perceptions and symbols matter. The UK's ability to hold itself out as the world's leading soft power is undermined when we do not take a public stand in support of our values. Those who are suffering from, or perpetrating, human rights abuses must hear us voicing our values clearly.

So when one of the most senior civil servants tells a parliamentary committee that human rights is "not one of our top priorities", alarm bells go off.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) Permanent Under-Secretary, Sir Simon McDonald, was talking to the Foreign Affairs Committee in September ahead of the 2015 Spending Review.

It was a surprisingly candid comment which generated concern amongst many who work in the human rights field. It gave helpful focus to our inquiry into the FCO's administration and funding of its human rights work - the resulting report is published today.

The FCO's role in supporting human rights overseas is of great value. One of the keys to long term global stability and prosperity is a world where the inviolable rights of all individuals are protected. In January 2016, the FCO gave a reassuring indication of its commitment to human rights by doubling the annual funding for its dedicated human rights programme, the Magna Carta Fund for Human Rights and Democracy, to £10.6million.

However, evidence taken from a range of human rights organisations during the inquiry indicated a clear perception that the FCO has, in fact, deprioritised its human rights work. The FCO strongly denied that this is the case, but the Committee found that its actions since the change of Government have created this perception.

Current FCO Ministers have scored some unnecessary own goals. This has undermined the some of the excellent human rights work carried out by the Department, and needs to be remedied.

For example, the Foreign Secretary's apparent personal instruction to the FCO and British embassies not to fly the Rainbow Flag for London Pride in 2015. Whilst the FCO said at the time that "the union flag always takes priority and is flown from the FCO's main flagpole at all times", the Rainbow Flag was flown at the FCO when William Hague was Foreign Secretary. The FCO's new approach was at odds with the numerous other Government departments which did fly the Rainbow Flag for London Pride.

British embassies are one of the few safe spaces for some international LGBTI communities. The FCO should rightly be proud of this. It is nonsensical, however, that the FCO cannot bring itself to demonstrate support for such inclusive environments in its own offices in Whitehall and on our sovereign territory overseas where symbolic support is possible, important and appreciated.

Whilst the FCO often speaks of the importance of quiet diplomacy, there is a time and place for more forceful overt diplomacy. The FCO maintains a list of Human Rights Priority Countries (formerly called Countries of Concern) on which it reports regularly. Designation of a country on this list sends an important message to countries with poor human rights records. However, Bahrain and Egypt, two countries with weak human rights records, were not included on last year's list.

The FCO needs to take positive steps to counter the perception that its' Ministers have deprioritised human rights. Giving strong overt support to the Italians seeking justice for the Cambridge doctoral student, Giulio Regeni, almost certainly tortured and killed in the hands of Egyptian security forces, would be an excellent place to start.

Crispin Blunt is the Conservative MP for Reigate and chair of the foreign affairs committee

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