Home and away: our human rights policies at odds - Refugee Council
May 3, 2013

Home and away: our human rights policies at odds

By James Drennan, Advocacy team volunteer

2013-14 represents a make-or-break year for progressive human rights policy on the international stage, especially in lieu of what can be seen as an institutional contraction of activity as part of the on-going  global economic downturn .  For the UK, the year offers the opportunity to be re-elected to the Human Rights Council (HRC) after a mandatory and relatively forgotten-about hiatus. 

The UK is now actively campaigning for re-election to this body, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has made its membership, and its substantial lobbying work done at the supranational level, a significant aspect of its recent Human Rights and Democracy Report 2012.  In certain sectors, however, questions can be raised as to whether work done at home reflects the FCO’s human rights agenda abroad, most notably in the field of asylum.    

As with any organisation whose intention is to support something as affective as human rights policy, one has to beware of focus placed on human rights abuses, and what is actually being done to limit these abuses, this without being caught up in toothless rhetoric.  Obviously, the UK’s ability to curtail human rights abuses around the globe is (and, perhaps, should be) truncated by a host of systemic barriers, not the least being  our tattered  financial sector/empty pockets. 

In any case, it is quite simply not possible to act as the world’s constable, and if it were the actual outcome of this sort of action would most likely smack of hegemony rather than harmony.  Still, there are things one state can do to recognise, and take action, either through agencies within that country, its government, or its citizens there and abroad.   

Please consider the relevance of asylum policy in the UK, policy which can only be seen as slow and –  perhaps increasingly – inaccurate, most recently evidenced via Amnesty International’s report detailing flawed decision-making practices at the initial stages. 

For  instance, in the case of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the FCO recognises in its report that there continues to be widespread violations including ‘…arbitrary arrests, summary executions, torture and forced recruitment (including of child soldiers)’ and ‘sexual violence’, this prevalent primarily via weak and/or complicit state authorities. These abuses have resulted in calling for increased International Criminal Court (ICC) involvement, and in increase to the ground-based interventions in the DRC to the tune of £135m during 2012-13. 

Despite this, the relaxation of guidance with regard to domestic claims for asylum by Congolese people in the UK quite simply has not been made.  Instead, there is a high refusal rate for initial decisions, particularly for women, and an explicit allusion to cases arguing there is no danger for refused asylum-seekers supporting opposition groups to be returned, this despite often-contrasting opinions within the country.

As was recently highlighted in the Refugee Council’s report Between a Rock and a Hard Place, the practice of refusing refugee status in expectation of eventual, though often impossible, voluntary return, or forcibly removing individuals to unsafe countries, is still common, regardless of damning rhetoric or project funding abroad.  Often, these individuals subsequently find themselves in hopeless situations here. 

What should be quite obvious through this dichotomy is that, while the FCO publicly accepts that gross human rights violations endure in countries such as Eritrea, DRC, Zimbabwe and others, and carries out substantive work on the ground through UK embassies, NGOs and ground-based rights groups, this does not translate to those who have fled persecution to this country.  This begs the question as to how, and why, these agencies differ so greatly in practice, and by transition how the UK can continue to operate, at least through rhetoric, as a human rights promoter abroad, but act so unsympathetic at its borders. 

Read about the Foreign Office’s recent work to combat human rights abuses overseas here.