Each year, the Foreign office conducts assessments of human rights around the world, in an attempt to measure the true extent of abuses and their occurrences. But this could be about to change as reports suggest that the new coalition government is planning to scrap these assessments.
Civil servants who were working on the next report on human rights have been told to stop. The reports tend to highlight incidents of torture and oppression, as well as being used to monitor the use of the death penalty. The report also goes further and often acts as a tool for ministers in establishing which countries it is ethical to trade with.
It is clear that this move of scrapping human rights assessments has caused a rift in the government, as former Liberal Democrat leader; Sir Menzies Campbell claimed it would "downgrade human rights". Sir Campbell went on to further remark that the move would be met with "fierce resistance".
The reports were first introduced in 1997 by Robin Cook, and its unsettled future is causing many NGO's to be concerned. Without this report ministers could ‘blindly' pursue commercial interests in countries that have poor records for human rights, say NGO's.
The previous Labour government used the human rights report to announce concerns for over 20 countries. These included China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Zimbabwe. The shadow foreign secretary, David Miliband remarked that the report "saved lives" as it revealed atrocities in countries such as Burma, Gaza and Sri Lanka. David Miliband went on to say that "Britain has led the world in standing up for human rights and the coalition is taking a serious step back."
Embassy staff are crucial in developing reports as they often spend months at a time investigating alleged atrocities. But recently staff have been told to "hold fire" as the future of the reports is discussed. David Miliband has remarked that "the word has already gone out to embassies that we need to concentrate on trade. It's not surprising, but it's very sad.
NGO's have expressed concerns that government officials are putting economic concerns above human rights. The director of Human Rights Watch warned that Government was "blindly pursuing commercial interests" and as a result would undermine human rights. These thoughts were echoed by Amnesty International UK by remarking that the Government risked raising "serious questions about how much they value human rights".
A spokeswoman for the Foreign Office remarked that "The foreign secretary is determined that the UK's foreign policy should reflect the values that we uphold at home and that our actions overseas be consistent with support for human rights.In the current financial climate ...we need to look carefully at how best to communicate and ensure transparency with parliament and the public on our human rights activity."