The UK will pursue trade deals with countries which do not meet human rights standards set by the European Court of Human Rights, according to leaked audio from a government trade meeting.
In a video call with staff at the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab appeared to say that not many trade deals could be made with “the growth markets of the future”, were the UK to rule out countries with human rights breaches.
What did the Foreign Secretary say?
In the footage, Mr Raab says: “I squarely believe we ought to be trading liberally around the world.
“If we restrict it to countries with ECHR-level standards of human rights, we’re not going to do many trade deals with the growth markets of the future.”
After the above comments were leaked to HuffPost, the FCDO released further comments form the conversation, to add context.
Mr Raab continued: “There will be moments, and I can think of behaviour that would cross the line and render a country beyond the pale.
“But fundamentally I’m a big believer in engaging to try and exert positive influence even if it’s only a moderating influence, and I hope that calibrated approach gives you a sense that it’s not just words - we back it up with action.”
Responding to the leak, an FCDO spokesman said: “We regret that this audio has been deliberately and selectively clipped to distort the Foreign Secretary’s comments. As he made crystal clear in his full answer, the UK always stands up for and speaks out on human rights.
“In his full answer, in an internal meeting, he highlighted examples where the UK has applied Magnitsky sanctions and raised issues at the UN regardless of trade interests, and that this was a responsible, targeted and carefully calibrated approach to bilateral relations.”
‘The mask has slipped’
But opposition MPs and human rights organisations have accused the Government of being prepared to deal with any country despite human rights abuses, and of being willing to “sacrifice human rights at the altar of trade”.
Labour’s Shadow International Trade Secretary, Emily Thornberry, said: “The mask has slipped, and the shameful truth of Tory trade policy is revealed.
“Now in private he says the Government is prepared to sign trade deals with any country, even those violating the laws drawn up by British officials after the horrors of the Second World War.”
Director of Amnesty International UK, Kate Allen, said: “This apparent willingness to sacrifice human rights at the altar of trade is shocking, but sadly unsurprising. It fits a depressing pattern on human rights from this Government,” she added.
“Trade is obviously important to all nations, but the Foreign Secretary shouldn’t be throwing human right defenders to the wolves like this.
“So-called ‘growth markets’ - countries like India, Indonesia or Brazil - are often precisely places where human-rights protections are fragile and under threat.”