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The Brexit Effect: Trade Deals Outrank Human Rights Concerns

Steve Shaw reports on the House of Commons vote which allows the British Government to sign off on trade deals even if they are with countries guilty of mass killings

International Trade Secretary Liz Truss at the UK-Africa Investment Summit in 2020. Photo: DFID/Wikimedia Commons

The Brexit EffectTrade Deals Outrank Human Rights Concerns

Steve Shaw reports on the House of Commons vote which allows the British Government to approve trade deals with countries guilty of mass killings

Cameroon has become a country divided by language. The African nation is on the brink of civil war and the French-speaking Government has claimed that the cause is violent English-speaking separatists who want to create their own nation. 

But many English speakers and human rights groups have claimed that, in reality, the Government is behind much of the violence. Witnesses have documented soldiers shooting civilians indiscriminately, schools being attacked and homes torched.

The UN Human Rights Office has said that this has caused the displacement of 700,000 people and, on New Year’s Day, the US Senate passed a bipartisan resolution which condemned the French-speaking Government of President Paul Biya. It accused Biya of repressing English speakers politically and economically for decades – and of using excessive force in crushing protests.

But, as this has been taking place, the UK Government has been celebrating one of its latest post-Brexit trade deals – with Cameroon. The Department for International Trade released a statement that praised the deal for allowing businesses to trade “without any additional barriers or tariffs” while the Minister for International Trade Ranil Jayawardena praised it for reinforcing Britain’s commitment “to supporting developing countries” – as well as Cameroon’s “economic development”.

It was quietly signed-off without any scrutiny from MPs, who were not even allowed to read its contents.

Turning A Blind Eye

Deals with brutal regimes are set to continue after the Government narrowly won a vote this week to remove an amendment to the Trade Bill, which would have forced ministers to withdraw from deals with nations the UK High Court ruled are guilty of mass killings.

The amendment saw 33 Conservative MPs side with the opposition, including former party leader Iain Duncan Smith. Speaking in the House of Commons, Duncan Smith said it would have been “a sound legal basis for the Government to engage with its obligations under genocide prevention in a way that is consistent with long-standing UK policy”.

He was backed by fellow Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood, who said that the debate showed “a temporary absence in clarity” about what Britain stands for and what it is willing to defend: “The world watched and hesitated when genocide took place in Rwanda and indeed in Syria; let’s not hesitate again. Let’s have the moral courage to stand tall in what we believe in and what we are willing to defend.”

But the majority of Tory MPs argued that such an amendment would remove the Government’s power to make decisions on trade policy. Conservative MP Liam Fox – who has often argued in favour of arms deals with repressive regimes such as those in the Middle East – said that he would not support the amendment because “trade policy should be conducted via the elected government”. He also argued that he voted for Britain to leave the European Union “to take back control” – but this principle should not involve giving “more power to judges in the United Kingdom”.

There have been few examples in recent years of the Government taking a strong stance against foreign regimes involved in atrocities. Britain’s rupture from the world’s liberal, democratic nucleus will compel it to strike deals with these regimes and tolerate the crimes of repressive administrations in exchange for trade.

When thousands of Rohingya Muslims were slaughtered in Myanmar and many more raped, tortured and displaced, the British Government did almost nothing in holding Myanmar to account. Indeed, it fell to smaller countries such as The Gambia to bring action against Myanmar in The Hague. So far, the UK has not supported the case, despite the United Nations urging the international community to do so.

Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran also pointed out that, when genocide occurred against the Yazidis in Syria, the Government ignored it. This trend will surely continue, via Brexit.

Deals Without Human Rights

Much of the Commons debate focused on the implications for a future deal with China – a country that has been widely accused of committing genocide against Muslim Uyghurs, including by America.

The UK Government insists that there is no imminent prospect of a trade deal with China, yet such an agreement was repeatedly flogged by Brexiters during the 2016 EU Referendum campaign, as an example of the new horizons Britain could explore.

Yet, it’s not just China that should be a concern for human rights advocates.

“Anyone who cares about the human rights record of China must also care deeply about the records of Egypt, Turkey and Cameroon or Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Brazil,” Labour MP Emily Thornberry said in the debate.

“The [US] Senate resolution condemned with great force the atrocities committed by the Anglophone separatist militias and it speaks with equal power about the actions of the Cameroon Government, including torture and sexual abuse, massacres and burnings of villages, use of live ammunition against protesters, arbitrary arrests and unlawful detention, forced disappearances and deaths in custody, attacks on journalists and the regular killing of civilians including women, children and the elderly.”

Thornberry said she wondered what senators in the US would think if they knew that “on that very same day” the UK had celebrated a new trade agreement with Cameroon.

“A trade deal agreed by ministers, apparently with no consideration and clearly no concern for the persistent gross violations of international human rights that are taking place in Cameroon,” she continued. “A trade deal which none of us in this House bar ministers on the bench opposite have even been allowed to read let alone debate or approve.”

The Government won a narrow victory in the Commons – by 319 votes to 308 – that will allow it to continue signing trade deals with nations accused of genocide. However, it is expected that a further amendment may later be approved by MPs, allowing judges to advise the Government about whether a nation has committed genocide, after which ministers can make their decision.

Given the economic pressures wrought by Brexit, it seems unlikely that the Government will be guided by human rights and a belief in moral leadership.

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