Trade higher priority than human rights for Foreign Office, says top civil servant

November 22, 2016

Image of a beheading occurring

Under questioning by MPs today, the UK Foreign Office’s most senior civil servant has admitted that ‘prosperity’ is above human rights when it comes to his department’s priorities.

Sir Simon McDonald, Permanent Secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), told MPs that “clearly more resource is devoted…to prosperity than to human rights,” adding that human rights is “not the top line” but rather “there in the mix.”

Sir Simon’s comments are similar to those he made just over a year ago, when he said that human rights were no longer a “top priority” for the Government.  At the time, his claim was followed by denials by Government ministers and criticism by Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC).  Since his 2015 comments, the FCO’s role in the ‘prosperity agenda’ has been questioned following the establishment of a separate Department for International Trade.

Today, FAC member Ann Clwyd MP referred to those comments, pointing out to Sir Simon that “last time [he] gave evidence to us, we talked about the priorities now for the UK foreign policy and I think I recall he said trade was top of the list of priorities and human rights is very near the bottom.” She then asked: “Has there been any revision?”

Sir Simon replied that “when we look through our management information, clearly more resource is devoted exclusively or principally to prosperity than to human rights…So even though it is not the top line, it is there in the mix.”

Sir Simon’s comments come ahead of a planned visit by Prime Minister Theresa May in December to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), where she will meet with the rulers of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, among others. The Secretary of State for International Trade, Liam Fox, has said that there will be “ever closer collaboration” between the UK and the Gulf kingdoms post-Brexit.  International human rights charity Reprieve has urged the Prime Minister to raise serious human rights abuses with her Gulf counterparts, including the use of the death penalty against children and those involved in protests calling for reform.

Commenting, Maya Foa, a director at Reprieve said: “It is alarming that the Foreign Office’s top civil servant is continuing to state that human rights are a lower priority for his department.  When the Prime Minister meets the rulers of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain next month, she must make clear to them that trade cannot trump human rights – and call for them to commute the death sentences they have handed down to juveniles and protesters.  Otherwise, the perception will grow that Britain’s principles are up for sale to the highest bidder.”


Notes to Editors

1. Reprieve is an international human rights organization. Reprieve’s London office can be contacted on: communications [at] / +44 (0) 207 553 8140. Reprieve US, based in New York City, can be contacted on Katherine [dot] oshea [at] / +1 917 855 8064.

2. Sir Simon’s comments can be viewed at the following link, from 15:21: