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Lord Harries: Human rights must be validated in post-Brexit trade agreements

4 min read

The UK Parliament must take into account a country's human rights record when seeking new trade deals after Brexit, ensuring the strong human rights considerations built into EU trade agreements are continued, writes Lord Harries.

Throughout the world human rights are increasingly under threat.

There is hardly a country in the world where there is not some cause for concern, and in many there is a flagrant denial of the rights we take for granted in this country.

Some today pooh pooh the idea of rights and talk scornfully about the human rights industry, so it is important to remind ourselves what they are really about. They are in origin about protecting the individual against the power of the state.

In the aftermath of the terrible atrocities of World War II, great men and women enshrined this in the UN declaration of Human Rights, and the other conventions and declarations that followed on from this, not least the European Convention.

I believe that future historians will look back on this legislation as one of the great achievements of the 20th century.

Human rights are, in the words of the legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin, “trumps”. They outbid any reason of state to torture or deny due process to the individual. They are enshrined in law and they depend on law for their effectiveness but they are rooted in the equal worth and dignity of every human being.

This value of the individual, as a number of recent books have stressed, has come about a result of our Christian inheritance but it is of course as often as not today championed by secular humanists.

After Brexit there will be desperate efforts to maximise trade wherever it can be found.

The pressure will be enormous, and at a time like that it will be particularly important to keep in mind the fundamental values for which as a country we stand.

The pressure to play down the importance of human rights comes not just from the desirable aim of maximising trade, but because of the rise of what are now termed civilisational states.

There has always been pressure from nationalist states to deny the reality of human rights.

The nation, which in practise may mean the rule of an authoritarian government, it is argued, takes priority over individual considerations. But today it is sometimes done in the name of a civilisation. China, with its long civilisation, is of course the major culprit. From this perspective there are Chinese values, or more exactly, Chinese Communist values, and this, it is argued, is a superior alternative to the European insistence on individual rights.

Against this, we should say unashamedly and unequivocally that human rights are a universal norm-a legal norm as expressed in the UN declaration and the other legal instruments that flowed from it-and a moral norm, as underpinned by a recognition of the equal worth and value of every human being on earth.

They are not just an expression of Western imperialism or a Western point of view. They have universal validity and application, however often denied in practice.

At the moment the UK is part of the EU which has strong human rights considerations built into trade agreements.

When we leave, we need to ensure that there continues to be effective scrutiny.  It serves little purpose to show an agreement to parliament after it has already been agreed.

Parliament needs to be able to scrutinise it in the process of formulation. It is welcome that the Government has set out an outline plan for this, whereby parliament would look at successive stages of the negotiations before giving approval.

Parliament must keep them up to this and it must involve looking not just at rights directly relevant to the trade deal but more widely at the country’s human rights record.

It is easy either to despair or just shrug ones shoulders at the violation of human rights round the world.

At a time when there will be even more pressure to increase trade it is even more important to affirm their continuing validity.


Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a Crossbench Member of the House of Lords. 

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Read the most recent article written by Rt Rev Lord Harries of Pentregarth - Lord Harries: We must give more aid to NGOs best placed to tackle extreme poverty and help the most vulnerable


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