THE BLOG

Human Rights and the FCO: A Case of Disjuncture or Dishonesty?

13/06/2013 17:19 BST | Updated 12/08/2013 10:12 BST

Good news for human rights advocates in the UK! The FCO is all a-twitter over the voluntary pledges that form part of the UK's campaign for election to the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council.

Human rights advocates will be delighted to hear that, according to a publication issued by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as part of the UK's campaign for election to the United Nations Human Rights Council, the UK 'is a passionate, committed and effective defender of human rights.' Indeed, given recent events - the Bill of Rights fiasco, the suggestion that the UK might withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights the Justice Secretary's proposed scrapping of the Human Rights Act to name just a few - this will come as a welcome relief to those of us have watched with mounting concern an aggressive politician and media-driven campaign against human rights protection in this country.

The Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council is the inter-governmental body within the UN system primarily responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe. It is mandated to address situations of human rights violations and making recommendations on them. The Council is made up of 47 UN Member States which are elected for three-year terms by the UN General Assembly. When electing members of the Council, the Assembly is required to take 'into account the candidate States' contribution to the promotion and protection of human rights, as well as their voluntary pledges and commitments made thereto'. The UK has already done two terms on the Human Rights Council but this 'up-to-date' statement of voluntary pledges provides a useful insight into what the UK regards as its key human rights priorities, both at home and abroad.

So far, so good. There are certainly aspects of the pledges that build on UK human rights strengths admirably - the pledges on freedom of expression, for instance. Overall, however, the picture that the pledges document paints of UK human rights priorities strikes the reader as very different to that reflected in government statements and state policy in practice.

The first pledge is to 'work for the protection of the most vulnerable in our societies'. Those who have protested against the impact of welfare 'reform' and austerity measures on groups such as children and people with disabilities will no doubt be overjoyed at the news that the UK is 'committed' and 'focused' on the rights of these groups. Child-rights organisations will be equally surprised to hear that the UK 'protects children through a substantial body of legislation which encompasses the principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child'. However, if the FCO says that 'these laws create an effective national framework to support positive outcomes for children', then it must be true - and the devil take the nay-sayers like the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the Poverty and Social Exclusion Project and Save the Children with their inconvenient, extensive research findings that highlight the negative impact that Coalition policies have had on child rights in the UK.

What, one might ask, about the report of the UK Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights which raised serious concerns about disabled people in the UK's enjoyment of the right to independent living under the UN Disability Convention? Or the human rights impact of the bedroom tax? Put your mind at rest: according to the FCO, the UK is 'committed to making a living reality' of the rights in that instrument through its 'policies and practice'.

Organisations focusing on women's rights-related issues will surely be over the moon at the realisation that the UK is 'proud to be at the forefront of progressing gender equality domestically'. Sure, the Fawcett Society and the Women's Budget Group may have highlighted women's economic inequality and 'the deteriorating situation of women in the UK' but clearly they are missing the bigger picture. After all, the UK is committed to increasing 'women's economic well-being'. Worried that civil legal aid cuts and a reduction in the scope of services covered by legal aid will negatively impact on women who have experienced domestic violence? Don't be: the UK has pledged to work internationally to increase women's' access to justice.

It will be a weight off the mind of people like the Libyan dissident Sami al-Saadi to hear that the UK works 'to combat torture wherever it exists'. Those who have been subject to rendition, or are at risk of deportation or extradition to countries where torture is practised, will no doubt give a resounding thumbs-up to the UK's commitment to the UN Convention Against Torture (which expressly prohibits such activity), as well as the promise made to 'assist other governments to prohibit and prevent torture'. Sure, just last week saw the UK receive a drubbing from the UN expert committee that monitors implementation of that Convention (something that has not been the subject of FCO tweeting, funnily enough) but all that is clearly set to change.

Are the pledges the result of UK governmental disingenuousness with regard to its commitment to and record on human rights? Or simply a manifestation of cluelessness as to what giving effect to human rights obligations actually entails? Maybe the government just knows that it can ignore anything the Human Rights Council says to it, even if it is a member. Whatever the answer, when reading the pledges one cannot help but be struck by the stark disconnect between the assertions made about human rights in the UK and much of what is happening in practice. Either way those interested in human rights would be advised to contain their excitement.