Trade deals reveal Tory contempt for human rights and Parliamentary scrutiny

During the referendum, voters were promised Westminster would have greater power to scrutinise legislation. Liberal Democrats recently made valiant attempts to hold the government to account for its post-Brexit trade deals.

European Union era deals are being “rolled over” by the government. These recycled deals contain review mechanisms that can be triggered if parties breach human rights and democracy clauses. Yet, in the case of the Cameroon deal, those mechanisms were not triggered despite decades of election-rigging, corruption and more recent human rights abuses. What hope is there that the Conservatives will consider current atrocities as sufficient to suspend the rolled over deal? When Lib Dems asked why Parliament was allowed no scrutiny, they were told that MPs had a 14-minute debate in 2010. So much for post-Brexit sovereignty.

In addition, a new report by Global Rights Index finds that five of the 10 countries rated as the ‘worst in the world for workers’ have been given trade deals by Britain in the past two years. The UK-Australia deal has been widely condemned by environmentalists, animal welfare charities and farmers.

The debates initiated by Sarah Olney and Lord Purvis revealed the time warp in which the Foreign Office and Department for International Trade exist. The trade ministers, Graham Stewart MP and Lord Grimstone, gave a masterclass in arrogance and delusional 1950s thinking. They assume that foreign governments respectfully take notice when visiting British ministers raise human rights issues. But in the absence of the carrots and sticks of diplomatic persuasion, the UK’s pompous words have little effect.

MPs and peers were repeatedly told that Conservative ministers visiting the Cameroon regime “made our position clear” on human rights issues.  “We are closely monitoring the situation,” “we had candid discussions,” “we made our position very clear,” and most frequently, “we call for” x, y and z.

In my work in Africa, I have met officials who admit that once the UK’s representatives have left after their “candid discussions,” the Africans present have a good laugh. “By the time they are on their planes going back to London we have forgotten about them.” For these officials, only the threat of targeted individual sanctions will bring about a change of behaviour. In addition, Britain’s ambassadors and high commissioners are under pressure from the FCDO to maintain cordial relations with their hosts rather than deliver warnings about the likely consequences for human rights abuses.

Both Lord Purvis and Sarah Olney made the case for a joined up foreign policy that reconciled the desire for trade with a commitment to human rights, with benchmarks that would trigger so-called escape clauses built into deals.

Referring to the UK-Cameroon trade deal, the Lib Dem peer, Lord Thomas of Gresford, asked the most searing question of the Lords’ debate:

Could the Minister explain why we have entered into a rollover agreement with a country whose administration is so mired by human rights abuses that even Donald Trump withdrew trade privileges from them? The protection of human rights is said to be an essential element in the agreement, but words are not enough in the face of ongoing human rights abuses.

Unfortunately, he received only hollow platitudes from the government in response.

* Rebecca Tinsley is founder of the human rights group,, and on the Liberal International British Group Executive

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • John Marriott 30th Jun '21 - 8:51pm

    Let’s be honest, the Tories are so desperate to plug the GDP hole created by Brexit, even though the ‘deals’ so far created and in the pipeline barely move the dial. Truly pathetic.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 30th Jun '21 - 10:07pm

    I was not surprised to discover this from a regime, in the UK, that probably let the current Corona version into the Uk, because Johnson expected to butter up Modi, he placated them by a plan to visit and by letting the borders open!

    I was surprised his UK govt is allowing the UK to have stronger animal standards than the EU, the EU having let them deteriorate recently.

    Rebecca is an excellent exponent of what is good in international concern.

    Both the UK and EU are not always. Our party needs to say it aboutlousy policies in the EU as well as the UK.

  • Helen Dudden 1st Jul '21 - 11:11am

    One positive policy in the EU is slowing down traffic.
    As we have those electric scooters on pavements in our cities, often with a passenger, my sympathy is for visually impaired people. Often, these scooters are led across pavements for anyone to fall over.

  • Peter Hirst 4th Jul '21 - 2:05pm

    This government is desparate to show that Brexit is working. Everything else is secondary so we can expect more dodgy trade deals. It is only when it realises that it made a wrong decision and starts to row back that we can expect some semblance of observing human and animal rights in these deals.

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