The Case for Greater UK Consistency on Human Rights

As most statements of foreign and development policy tend to, recent UK Government policy statements such as the International Development White Paper have identified the promotion of human rights as a key priority for the UK. However, recent domestic legislation such as the 2023 Public Order Act, which places limitations on the right to protest, and the 2023 Illegal Migration Act, which has drawn criticism from international partners such the UN Refugee Agency, threaten to undermine this.

A spotless domestic human rights record cannot reasonably be seen as a requirement to raise human rights concerns in other countries and regions. However, with its recent shifts the UK is, at best, acutely vulnerable to accusations of hypocrisy in its human rights work when it is actively working in contravention to the human rights rules and norms it vocally champions. At worst, it risks providing inadvertent support to authoritarian actors who are working to redefine and undermine the global human rights order.

Human rights agreements and treaties form a core part of the rules that have shaped the world since the end of the Second World War. While for many this longevity may be a cause for support and celebration, for others it appears to be a reason for criticism. The UK Foreign Secretary, Lord Cameron, while defending the Government’s plans to ‘offshore’ asylum seekers to Rwanda, said that “things like the [1951] refugee convention were written for another age”. Later, in the same debate, Lord Cameron said “one of the reasons for supporting a rules-based order is that it enables you to call out other countries when they fail to live up to it,” in relation to Hong Kong.

The idea that the current human rights rules are outdated is central to the foreign policy of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), a country whose actions the UK Government has described as an “epoch-defining and systemic challenge”. The PRC is currently engaged in a long-term project to replace the conception of rights as universal and unbending with a view that instead emphasises sovereignty and a state-individualised model of rights. A statement from the PRC at the 52nd session of the UN Human Rights Council stated that China has found “a path of human rights development that meets the trend of the times and suits its national condition”. In March 2023, “Beijing introduced the Global Civilization Initiative (GCI),” which, according to analysts at the Atlantic Council, “promotes a state-focused and state-defined values system and marks another effort by Beijing to eliminate universal values in areas such as human rights and democracy”.

Authoritarian states are working to reshape the international human rights ecosystem and violations are ever more brazen and open. The UK is rhetorically condemning and combating these moves, while simultaneously implementing legislation and policy that has faced widespread criticism for eroding and undermining rights at home.

An example of this contradiction may be seen in the case of Hong Kong, with the recent passing of the Safeguarding National Security law, also known as Article 23, which implements even more draconian measures than the punitive National Security Law of 2021. The UK Foreign Office published a statement of concern, stating that the new law would undermine Hong Kong’s implementation of international human rights agreements, invoking the ICCPR, a multilateral treaty laying out people’s civil and political rights such as freedom of assembly and association. At the same time, the UK has recently implemented its own limitations on protest, including enabling the police to intervene even before an individual has caused serious disruption.

Likewise, the UK condemns violations against groups like the displaced and stateless Rohingya, with UK Government statements echoing international legal norms around refugees by advocating for “conditions in Myanmar [to] allow for the refugees to return in a voluntary, safe and dignified manner”. Meanwhile, the UK breaks its own obligations through legislation such as the Safety of Rwanda Bill, which the UNHCR has warned “sets a perilous precedent globally”, and by housing asylum seekers in unsafe accommodation, exposing the UK to accusations of hypocrisy and risking rendering important interventions ineffective.

None of these examples should be taken as like-for-like comparisons – to do so would be inaccurate, as well as diminish the scale of oppression and violence being inflicted on people in Hong Kong and Myanmar. But the potential hypocrisy of the UK speaking out in defence of international law while breaking it with its own domestic legislation is clear. If a country intends to defend international human rights laws and norms, then ensuring its own laws do not openly break international standards is key. Recent conversations with FCDO officials reflect as such – that the UK’s recent human rights policy has left them feeling unable to make meaningful interventions for refugees in emergencies around the world.

This isn’t to unequivocally endorse current international law. Certainly, our agreements need an update to account for rapid technological advancement, and for other current blind spots in international human rights norms such as LGBTQI+ rights. But updating something does not mean tearing it apart and throwing it out altogether. Updates should be based on reaffirming and modernising the core values of these agreements – universality, accountability, inalienability – rather than doing away with them. To do so would be to hand a rhetorical free pass to those committing mass-scale human rights violations against populations, and shore up the efforts of authoritarian actors to reshape the human rights ecosystem to better favour their own values and goals.

Supporting the rules-based order begins at home. The current trajectory of domestic rights policy and discourse in the UK will continue to have damaging implications for our global voice, and a long-term corrosive effect on the system of rules and norms from which the people of the UK and the world greatly benefit. In attacking them as outdated, the UK risks supporting authoritarian and anti-rights actors who are working to reshape global governance for their own benefit.

It would be wise for law and policymakers to bear this in mind.

James Jennion

James Jennion is an Associate Fellow at BFPG