Concern over absence of human rights considerations in new UK-Turkey trade deal

On 29 December 2020, the UK and Turkey signed a new trade deal, the 62nd such deal since the UK began the process of leaving the European Union two years ago. However, this deal, which maintains a relationship that was worth £18.6 billion in bilateral trade in 2019, has come under fire for its absence of scrutiny with regards to the human rights record of Erdoğan’s government.

In theory, reforms enacted by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) in 2000 ensure that all treaties with significant human rights implications are adequately scrutinised by the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) and subsequently reported to parliament – in practice, this check has largely been subverted, including on this occasion.

The deal undermines previous work by rights advocates, with the hypocrisy of the current government’s stance highlighted by Liz Truss, Britain’s international trade secretary and a key contributor to the deal having previously stated that:

“the United Kingdom will use its presidency of the G7 to ramp up its work worldwide with like-minded allies to champion freedom, human rights and the equality of opportunity.”

Turkey’s attacks on human rights have been extensive in recent years, abusing anti-terror laws to target government opposition, with the failed coup of 2016 often used as justification.

Erdogan’s government has frequently attacked freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and freedom of movement; those who speak out against these violations are imprisoned or exiled by the partisan judiciary, with Human Rights Watch stating that:

“political influence over the judiciary in Turkey has led to courts systematically accepting bogus indictments, detaining and convicting individuals and groups the Erdoğan government regards as political opponents, despite lack of evidence of criminal activity”

The signing of this agreement also sets a dangerous precedent for prospective trade deals, possibly setting the tone for future negotiations. The United Kingdom is currently in the process of negotiating new trade deals with Cameroon, Egypt, Singapore, Uganda, and South Sudan – all of whom currently boast poor records on human rights.

The UK’s departure from the single market has made the apparent disregard for human rights particularly concerning. With Brexit fueling concern regarding the future of British trade, many fear the UK will seek to hastily secure trade agreements, without concern for countries’ human rights records.

This prompted the House of Lords to approve an amendment to the flagship Trade Bill which requires ministers to ensure human rights assessments are provided for new trade deals, with the power to abandon deals on the basis of a negative assessment.

As the British government looks for new trading partners to fill the gaps left by the EU, it has an obligation to implement clauses that encourage the employment of human rights in countries where they are violated. They must not prioritise the preservation of British trade with autocratic governments over the human rights of millions of people and ensure that all treaties are properly scrutinised.

What is included in the UK-Turkey trade deal?

  1. The trade deal recommits to pre-existing tariff-free access for exports between the two countries. In 2019, 7,600 UK businesses exported goods to Turkey while the UK is Turkey’s second biggest export market.
  2. Both countries have committed to working towards a more comprehensive and “ambitious” free trade agreement in the future.
  3. This deal is particularly tailored to UK automotive, manufacturing and steel industries which collectively exported more than £1.5bn worth of goods in 2019.
  4. Meanwhile, Turkey continues to be able to trade textiles, washing machines and car parts tariff free.
  5. The total trading partnership between Turkey and the UK was worth £18.6bn last year.

The Trade Bill amendment

On 7 December 2020, Peers voted 297 votes to 221 to approve a Labour frontbench amendment requiring ministers to provide a human rights impact assessment for all future trade agreements and to withdraw from agreements if an impact assessment showed serious human rights abuses.

On introducing the amendment, Lord Collins of Highbury stated:

“The Government’s pragmatism on human rights has been particularly clear when it comes to the promotion of trade. We have seen the red-carpet treatment given to notorious human rights abusers…

…This amendment proposes a triple barrier against trade agreements with countries that abuse human rights.

First, Ministers would be obliged to provide an assessment of the human rights record of any overseas state before starting trade negotiations with them, so that this could be examined by the relevant scrutiny committees. Secondly, before seeking to ratify any subsequent trade deal, Ministers would have to publish a determination of whether the state has committed serious violations of human rights, so that this could be considered by MPs and Peers as part of the CRaG process for the scrutiny of new trade agreements. Thirdly, Ministers would be required to produce an annual report on the ongoing compliance of their new trading partner with international human rights laws and determine whether the UK’s trade agreement should continue if serious violations have occurred.

Crucially, the determinations made by Ministers at stages two and three would be subject not only to scrutiny by Parliament but could potentially be challenged in the courts by human rights campaign groups, if there was clear and verifiable evidence that the Government were ignoring serious human rights abuses and violations of international law.”

The amendment is in line with the findings of the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report “Global Britain: Human Rights and the Rule of Law”, which recommended:

“The Government will face conflicting priorities between human rights and other Government policies, especially trade deals. This may create short term conflicts, but the prioritisation of human rights is in the UK’s long-term commercial, as well as moral, interest. The Government should commit to including human rights clauses within future trade agreements. In its response, the Government should set out how this commitment could work in practice. It should also explain to us the steps it is taking to promote joined-up working between representatives from other Government departments within posts.”

Following the completion of the Report Stage and the Third Reading in the House of Lords, the Trade Bill will be returned to the Commons for the consideration of amendments. The government should not turn its back on human rights in the pursuit of trade and we implore them to support this amendment.

The full text of the amendment can be read HERE.

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