The promotion and protection of human rights is at the heart of the UK’s foreign policy objectives. I, along with my ministerial team, consistently raise human rights violations wherever and whenever they occur. And with this in mind, I am delighted to introduce the FCO’s 2012 Annual Human Rights and Democracy Report, which details our efforts to promote human rights during 2012.
We have made a number of changes to this year’s report, including two new chapters. The first is on Promoting and Protecting Human Rights through the UN, and describes our work on human rights through the UN – the forum in which the UK seeks to promote a coordinated response to human rights violations from the international community. The second is on our Human Rights and Democracy Programme, an important source of funding that allows us to support hundreds of human-rights-related projects around the world.
Another innovation to this year’s report is a new section on the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative (PSVI), which I launched in May. The aim of this initiative is to strengthen and coordinate international efforts to prevent and respond to atrocities involving sexual violence, and to break down the culture of impunity around such crimes. We have included details of the work we have undertaken so far on PSVI, as well as a case study on the first deployment of a UK team of experts to the Syrian border to document abuses and provide essential training.
This year we have taken a fresh look at our methodology for including states in the Countries of Concern section. The new methodology will ensure that our criteria remain robust, particularly in response to the interest that the Foreign Affairs Committee and members of my Advisory Group on Human Rights have shown in this section. The primary factor in our consideration remains the overall human rights situation in a country. But we also take into account how well the UK is placed to work for change. As a result of this analysis, we retained 27 of the 28 countries highlighted in 2011, dropping only Chad.
My Advisory Group on Human Rights provided valuable input into reviewing those criteria, and the group continues to make a significant contribution to the development and implementation of our policy on human rights. I thank the group’s members for their commitment and their achievements so far, and look forward to continuing to work with them.
But in Syria we continue to see terrible atrocities committed against civilians. The situation deteriorated further in 2012, with further reports of massacres, including against children. I repeatedly condemned these terrible acts and have instructed our diplomats to take every opportunity to highlight these violations and abuses and call for action at the international level. The UK has been at the forefront of the work of the UN Human Rights Council on Syria and has co-sponsored a number of resolutions, including one to condemn the al-Houleh massacre. We are working to ensure that all perpetrators will be held accountable, and in April we sent a team to the region to gather evidence and provide training to Syrian activists to document human rights violations and abuses. This will provide a basis of information that can be used for future accountability processes. We are also at the forefront of calls for the situation in Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC). We believe that the blame for the escalating violence lies on the shoulders of Assad and his regime, and in 2013 we will work with the Syrian National Coalition and the international community to achieve a political transition to bring a sustainable end to this intolerable violence.
In contrast to Syria there have been positive developments elsewhere in 2012, including in those countries that were part of the Arab Spring: the first ever democratic presidential elections in Egypt; a democratically elected government in Tunisia; a renewed sense of optimism in Libya, which I visited in July, shortly after their first national elections in over 40 years; a new constitution in Morocco, which has created a framework for deeper reform and greater freedom; and the start of a process of political reform in Jordan, where elections in January 2013 represented a significant step forward in the transition to parliamentary democracy. We have been supporting democratic and economic reform in the Middle East through political advocacy, by working with multilateral organisations, and by supporting reform programmes, including through our £110 million Arab Partnership Fund. Change will be a long-term process and there will be challenges along the way, but much has already been achieved. We are in this for the long run.
In 2012, we also saw the conviction of Charles Taylor by the Special Court for Sierra Leone – the first time in recent years that a former head of state has been held to account for their role in war crimes and human rights violations. This was a landmark for international justice and the fight against impunity.
The situation in Somalia has also improved considerably over the last year, with a peaceful transition of power to a more representative political process. The London Conference in February played a role in delivering this progress. However, big challenges lie ahead of the new Federal Government, not least in providing security and basic services to the people of Somalia. The UK and Somalia have agreed to jointly host an international conference on Somalia in the UK in May 2013. This conference will mark the beginning of a new partnership between Somalia and its friends and neighbours.
We are also continuing with our efforts to support positive developments in Burma. When Aung San Suu Kyi came to the Foreign Office in June, she thanked the UK for never forgetting her during 20 years of oppression and struggle, even when others lost interest or heart. And I was pleased that, shortly after my visit to the country in January, the Burmese government signed an historic initial peace agreement with the Karen National Union after 63 years of conflict, and released a significant number of prominent political prisoners. However, there are ongoing challenges, particularly in Rakhine State, where inter communal fighting has led to the displacement of over 100,000 people. We will continue to play a leading role in the international community’s response to this issue and in ensuring that long-term solutions are found to the issue of Rohingya citizenship.
The UK also used its chairmanship of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers from November 2011 to May 2012 to secure reform of the European Court of Human Rights, building on the Interlaken and Izmir Declarations. The Declaration from the Brighton Conference in April was adopted unanimously by the 47 member states of the Council of Europe; it sets out a series of concrete reforms that should reduce the court’s backlog of applications and help to ensure that the court focuses on the most important cases.
The UK will continue to be active throughout 2013, working with individual countries, with civil society and through international organisations like the UN. And I hope that 2013 will conclude with our successful election to the UN Human Rights Council. We will remain vigilant to emerging situations where human rights are at risk, and continue to build solutions to longer-term problems, in pursuit of our vision of a world where the human rights of all people are respected.