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Can Global Britain influence human rights during trade negotiations?

Activists wearing face masks rally in solidarity with the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong in January 2020 | PA Images

3 min read

Brexit will no doubt change the dynamic of human rights diplomacy. Joint European mechanisms for tackling human rights abuses will no longer form the bedrock of the UK’s leverage tools.

In this new political order, the Global Britain strategy will fill the vacuum left behind in the aftermath of Brexit by providing a new framework for the UK to champion international human rights and democracy. In the foreign secretary’s own words, the doctrine will “reinforce Britain’s role in the world as a good global citizen”. 

Over the past year, the Government has made important steps to demonstrate that it is taking this new role seriously. The Foreign & Commonwealth Office’s decision to support the democratic aspirations of Hong Kong through a bespoke visa regime is just one example of the positive evolution of the UK’s human rights policy in the immediate aftermath of Brexit. The willingness of the Government to forgo deeper ties with China at a time of economic uncertainty shows that, to some extent, Global Britain will be guided by an ethical compass. 

The importance of human rights within the Global Britain strategy has been further augmented through the newly introduced Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulation. The new regulations brought a fresh wave of sanctions against the 49 individuals and organisations who have been complicit in human rights abuses, including individuals from Russia, Myanmar and Saudi Arabia. 

However, there is significant scope for these provisions to be extended well beyond the first wave to include other targets with abysmal human rights records. There have been calls for individuals associated with the Iranian regime to also be targeted – many of whom have grossly abused the rights of religious minorities such as members of the Baha’i Faith – as well as those who have played a role in detaining and mistreating British Iranian nationals Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori.

The success of these new Magnitsky-style regulations will therefore be defined by the extent to which they can be expanded to encompass a broad range of individuals who contravene international law. 

But can the UK influence human rights during trade negotiations? Beyond the sanctioning opportunities outlined above, Global Britain has also been identified as a new arena by which to expand international human rights, through trade agreements facilitated outside the EU. 

A significant portion of newly ratified trade deals have clauses within them that promote and uphold at least a few aspects of international rights. Around 80% of all trade agreements forged since 2013 include labour provisions, and another 40% mention issues associated with anti-bribery and corruption laws. 

With global democracy in retreat, a significant portion of the UK’s potential trading partners have a weak commitment to the rule of law and democracy. This means it will be harder to discuss these issues during negotiations because such issues are deeply entrenched within the states’ structure. 

Indeed, outside of workers’ rights, broader human rights such as the freedom of press and gender equality are rarely negotiated during trade talks for the simple fact that these issues fall squarely in the remit of domestic policy. 

Instead, successful pressure for further democratisation is normally built incrementally through efforts by domestic civil society rather than through external forces such as the UK, as evidenced by the Belarusian protests that emerged organically with little support from other states. 

Scratching the surface of the strategy, therefore, shows that the scope by which human rights can be influenced through trade negotiations is quite limited. From a broader policy perspective, only time will tell if the objectives outlined within Global Britain will actually yield any tangible results for the benefit of international human rights. 

Nabil Rastani is Dods senior political consultant for defence and international trade

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