Labour tells Tory MPs to “vote with their consciences” on trade bill

Elliot Chappell
© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Labour has urged Conservative colleagues to “vote with their consciences” in a parliamentary debate in which MPs will consider cross-party House of Lords amendments to the trade bill relating to human rights.

In a letter sent ahead of the session on Tuesday afternoon, Labour frontbenchers Lisa Nandy and Emily Thornberry stressed to Tory MPs that “our trade policy must be underpinned by our fundamental values”.

The amendments to the bill would force the government to assess the human rights records of countries before negotiating trade deals with them and would require the UK’s withdrawal from agreements with those held responsible for genocide.

In their letter, Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy and Shadow Trade Secretary Emily Thornberry argued that it is “essential” that parliament ensure “concerns about human rights are reflected in how we conduct trade negotiations”.

The Labour MPs told their Westminster colleagues: “In a number of recent debates, members from all sides have been united in their condemnation of human rights abuses, from Belarus to Hong Kong.

“It is important at these moments that the House can send a collective message that we will not turn a blind eye or permit such actions to go unchallenged.”

They argued that the changes to the trade bill are needed in order to remove the risk that post-Brexit trade deals are agreed “with insufficient regard for the human rights record of the trading partner”.

Nandy and Thornberry focused on the potential for a future trade deal with China, emphasising in particular the human rights crimes that the government has been accused of committing against its Uyghur community.

The frontbenchers wrote that accounts from Xinjiang form “part of a growing body of evidence that points to a prima facie case of crimes against humanity” and could be the basis for a charge of genocide.

“We have an opportunity on Tuesday to send a clear message: that as a country our trade policy must be underpinned by our fundamental values, that parliament must play a role in ensuring human rights concerns are addressed, and that – when the most serious violations of human rights occur – we will not turn away,” the letter reads.

Asked about China and the persecution of Uyghur Muslims, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told Andrew Marr on Sunday: “We shouldn’t be engaged in free trade negotiations with countries abusing human rights well below the level of genocide.”

The Labour letter to MPs also highlighted recent continuity agreements signed so that the UK could maintain free trade with a number of non-EU countries after the transition period for the country’s exit from the EU ended.

The UK agreement with Turkey was published at 3pm on New Year’s Eve, just nine hours before coming into force. The agreement signed by the government with Cameroon has still not been published, almost three weeks after taking effect.

Labour warned that the continuity agreements signed in December last year have ignored their recent human rights records and the speed with which they were concluded left no time for MPs to provide any proper scrutiny.

Below is the full text of the letter sent to MPs today.

Dear parliamentary colleagues,

We wanted to write to you in advance of Tuesday’s debate on the cross-party amendments to the trade bill which have been sent to us from the House of Lords.

Usually, ahead of such a debate, we might have the chance to talk over these amendments in person, and agree potential areas of common ground across the House on issues such as the strengthening of the Trade and Agriculture Commission’s role, or the protection of children against any circumvention of the recently-proposed legislation against online harms.

That is sadly not possible, so we are writing to you instead, and we particularly wanted to set out our thoughts on the amendments that will be debated relating to human rights and parliamentary scrutiny, which passed the House of Lords with very large and cross-party majorities, and which we hope will win significant support in the Commons too.

In a number of recent debates, Members from all sides have been united in their condemnation of human rights abuses, from Belarus to Hong Kong. It is important at these moments that the House can send a collective message that we will not turn a blind eye or permit such actions to go unchallenged.

In particular, we are all gravely concerned about the situation in Xinjiang and the growing body of evidence of the systemic human rights abuses being committed by the Chinese government on an industrial scale against the Muslim Uyghur people and other minorities. We know that this is an issue that colleagues from across the House share a common desire to act upon.

You will remember how MPs from all sides worked together after the Salisbury outrage to persuade Treasury and Foreign Office Ministers to introduce the Magnitsky amendment into the 2018 Sanctions and Money Laundering Bill.

In that same spirit, we are hopeful that the House will unite again to introduce amendments to the Trade Bill which would: (i) oblige the government to determine – and enable parliament to scrutinise – the compliance of potential trade partners with human rights laws before, during and after the negotiation of deals; and (ii) demand the revocation of agreements with trade partners found legally responsible for the most serious violations.

But before discussing those amendments, let us first explain why we believe they are required.

Human Rights clauses

As you will know, dating back to 1995, successive governments supported the principle that the trade agreements we entered into via the EU should contain a ‘human rights clause’, committing both parties to uphold international human rights law, and allowing the EU to suspend or revoke those agreements if the other party broke those commitments.

In many cases, those human rights clauses have been far too weak in their design, and especially in their enforcement, but they have remained an important principle in the last decade, and it had been hoped that the government would both maintain that principle and apply it with greater force once we were in a position to do so as an independent trading nation.

Speaking in February 2019 about negotiating continuity trade agreements with non-EU countries, the former International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, said: “Some countries have said that they didn’t like, for example, the human rights elements that were incorporated by the EU and they would like us to drop those in order to roll the agreements over. I’m not inclined to do so. The value we attach to human rights is an important part of who we are as a country.”

Recent continuity agreements

A recent baseline example of good practice was the agreement with Cote d’Ivoire, signed by the government in November 2020 and published in sufficient time for it to receive the full 21 sitting days of parliamentary scrutiny before taking effect on January 1st.

Annex III of that agreement replicates the effect and language of the EU’s 2000-2020 Cotonou Agreement with the African, Caribbean and Pacific states, committing both parties to uphold human rights and the rule of law as an essential element of the agreement, and spelling out the process and consequences that would follow any violation of that commitment.

However, a number of other agreements were signed before the end of the transition period, where the human rights principle appears to have been diluted, or indeed lost entirely:

  • The agreement with Kenya contains the same Annex III as Cote d’Ivoire but removes the entire section dealing with the consequences of any violations of the human rights commitments; that agreement is also open to other East African Community countries to join, some – like Burundi and South Sudan – with dire human rights records;
  • The agreements with Vietnam and Singapore replicate the EU’s trade deal with the countries but remove all cross-references to the accompanying political agreement, and fail to replicate the effect or content of that political agreement in an annex, leaving those two agreements with no legally-binding clauses on human rights whatsoever; and
  • The agreement with Turkey simply replicates the EU’s existing trade deal dating back to 1964, which – unsurprisingly – contained no references to human rights, an anachronism which the government has not sought to address.

In addition, there are two further countries where the government might reasonably have considered rejecting the proposed continuity agreements based on their recent human rights records, or as a minimum, acted to strengthen the human rights provisions in those agreements to gain some future leverage over their behaviour:

  • Egypt, which – under President Sisi – has become one of the most authoritarian and repressive dictatorships in the world, ranked 159 out of 162 on the Cato Institute’s 2020 personal freedom index (in front of only Sudan, Yemen and Syria). A trade agreement was signed with them on 14th December, with the existing toothless human rights clause from the 2004 EU treaty transposed without alteration; and
  • Cameroon, which has – since 2017 – been engaged in a brutal conflict in the country’s English-speaking regions, with thousands of civilians killed by state militias and half a million forced from their homes. A trade deal was secured with them on 30th December, and applied provisionally via a Memorandum of Understanding. Neither the MOU nor the agreement has yet been published, so we do not know what they say on human rights.

Parliamentary scrutiny

As you will know, under the terms of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, trade agreements – like other international treaties – must be laid before Parliament for a period of 21 sitting days before they become law. Within that time, a treaty can in theory be challenged by means of an Opposition Day Debate, but only if one is allotted in that 21-day period.

In all the cases mentioned above after Cote d’Ivoire, and five others besides, the agreements were published too late to undergo the statutory 21-day period of scrutiny, so came into effect on a provisional basis on 1st January without formal parliamentary ratification.

The trade agreements with Vietnam and Turkey were not laid before parliament until the afternoon of 31st December, taking effect just hours later, and – as mentioned earlier – the trade agreement and provisional MOU with Cameroon, which also came into effect on 1st January, have still – at the time of writing – not been published at all.

Looking back at the debates from 2010, it is clear that no-one ever envisaged that the procedures agreed in CRAG would govern the future parliamentary scrutiny and approval of trade agreements negotiated by Britain outside the EU. We know many members on all sides share our concerns over their adequacy for that purpose, and the deficiencies of recent trade agreements with respect to human rights are a clear example as to why.

The Lords amendments

The two cross-party amendments to the trade bill agreed by the House of Lords on human rights issues seek in different but compatible ways to oblige the government, and enable Parliament, to take greater account of the issue in relation to future trade agreements.

The Collins amendment proposes a triple barrier against trade agreements with countries who abuse human rights:

    • First, Ministers would be obliged to provide an assessment of the human rights record of any overseas state before starting trade negotiations with them, so this could be examined by the relevant scrutiny committees;
    • Second, before seeking to ratify any subsequent trade deal, Ministers would have to publish a determination as to whether the state had committed serious violations of human rights, so this could be considered by MPs and Peers as part of the process for the scrutiny of new trade agreements; and
    • Third, Ministers would be required to produce an annual report on their new trading partner’s ongoing compliance with international human rights laws, and determine whether the UK’s trade agreement should continue if serious violations had occurred.

The amendment’s definition of serious human rights violations encompasses genocide, torture, forced sterilisation, mass detention and forced labour, all informed by the horrific reports and first-hand accounts we have seen from Xinjiang, part of a growing body of evidence that points to a prima facie case of crimes against humanity, and which may form the basis of a charge of genocide within the meaning of the 1948 Convention.

However, the Collins amendment also covers a much wider range of serious abuses of human rights defined in international law, including attacks on civilians, arbitrary arrest, unfair trials, violence against peaceful protestors, and denial of other fundamental freedoms and rights, such as we have seen in Hong Kong and many other countries in recent years.

The Alton amendment focuses more narrowly on the crime of genocide, and seeks to demand that the government should revoke any future trade agreements with countries which have been found legally responsible for committing such a crime. We would also be happy to support widening the scope of this amendment to also include crimes against humanity, as defined by the Rome Statute.

For these proposed amendments to have the maximum impact, it is vital that the role of Parliament in analysing, debating and approving proposed trade agreements is strengthened and that is why we would urge Members on all sides to support as well the Purvis and Lansley amendments relating to parliamentary scrutiny of trade agreements.

Future risks

Put together, these four amendments make a powerful combination, striking the right balance between the powers of the Executive and the rights of Parliament, covering the full spectrum of the most serious human rights abuses, and removing the risk that post-Brexit trade agreements can be negotiated, signed, ratified and implemented on an ongoing basis, all with insufficient regard for the human rights record of the trading partner.

As seen from the evidence of recent continuity agreements, that is unfortunately no abstract risk, and based on the Department for International Trade’s stated priorities for negotiations over the next two years, it is a risk which may also arise, for example, in relation to:

      • The proposed formal trade agreement with Brazil, whose current government stands accused of serious human rights abuses against the Amazon indigenous peoples;
      • The proposed deepening of the continuity trade agreements now in place with Turkey and Mexico, given the poor recent human rights records of both countries; and
      • The proposed formal free trade agreement with the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, comprising the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain.

Of course, no-one would want to prevent the government pursuing these trade agreements, with all the economic benefits they may offer, but we hope colleagues will agree that the current approach is equally unacceptable, where there is no obligation on the government even to consider the human rights records of potential trade partners when doing deals with them.

In addition, the government’s proposal to seek accession to the Comprehensive Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) raises a vital question over whether we would be granted the same power of veto that existing members enjoy over proposed new members, given President Xi’s now repeated assertions of China’s desire to join the bloc, or indeed whether we would still seek to join the CPTPP if China’s own accession was proceeding in parallel.

Conclusion

It is essential that, as we begin to implement our own independent trading policy, we ensure that our collective concerns about human rights are reflected in how we conduct trade negotiations around the world, and that Parliament can play its proper role in scrutinising potential trade agreements with those human rights concerns in mind.

We have an opportunity on Tuesday to send a clear message: that as a country our trade policy must be underpinned by our fundamental values, that parliament must play a role in ensuring human rights concerns are addressed, and that – when the most serious violations of human rights occur – we will not turn away.

We would urge all colleagues to vote with their consciences on these matters tomorrow.

Yours faithfully,

Lisa Nandy
Shadow Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs

Emily Thornberry
Shadow Secretary of State for International Trade

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