Trade-offs: Brexit Britain and human rights

The reality of Brexit and the announcement that the UK will withdraw from the EU Single Market has put a renewed focus on British trade. Currently, 44 percent of Britain’s exports are to the EU and without a favourable trade deal – a likely outcome given the political considerations of the continent – these exports would be subject to import tariffs and administrative costs, estimated to be at least £4.5bn per year.

Given this possible reality, trade has become the British buzzword of 2017. It’s importance to the British economy post-Brexit underpinned a recent announcement from PricewaterhouseCoopers that strong trade deals could see Britain become the fastest-growing G7 economy.

This has also given greater prominence to questions about who Britain is trading with. International Trade Secretary Liam Fox has been accused of prioritising trade over human rights, visiting Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman, while Theresa May has stated that she aims for closer ties with Saudi Arabia. Much of this trade seems to revolve around the sale and distribution of weapons, and the latest deal with Turkey will see Britain develop fighter jets for the Turkish air force. The Turkish leader has presided over a deteriorating human rights situation since a failed coup last July, according to Amnesty International, and while the Prime Minister stressed that Turkey should “uphold its human rights obligations”, the statement seemed a weak response to criticism that May had “no particular plans to raise human rights concerns.”

British trade with oppressive regimes isn’t anything new. There have been increases since 2014 in the quantity of missiles and bombs sold to countries acknowledged by the British Foreign Office as being violators of human rights. Several have been accused of war crimes including  Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Burundi and the Maldives. Such practices are getting Britain into legal trouble, with the High Court due to rule on whether weapon sales to Saudi Arabia – that are likely exacerbating a humanitarian crisis in Yemen that has seen 12 million people suffer from starvation – have violated international humanitarian law.

Man holds up poster of young girl who looks as though she has been wounded in a conflict

Yemeni nationals protest against war in their country during a march in Moscow, Russia |
Photograph Nickolay Vinokurov / Shutterstock


However, is there a case to be made that a post-Brexit Britain can be both a defender of human rights abroad and a global trade actor? The moral case for engagement with countries that have a poor human rights record has been made by advocates of neo-liberal economics, with China and Cuba cited as evidence in favour of engagement. In the case of the former, it is argued that trade and economic reforms have enhanced the human rights situation in the country, and that in the case of the latter, sanctions didn’t help promote human rights in Cuba, and often isolated the persecuted.  However, to argue that human rights have improved due to trade and economic liberalisation in China seems a stretch given that the Chinese Community Party continues to curtail a range of fundamental human rights, including freedom of expression, association, assembly and religion.

There is also the consideration that post-Brexit Britain simply won’t have the necessary political capital to protect human rights at an international level. As a member of the world’s largest trading bloc, there was certainly more weight behind any cause Britain may have chosen to support. And, the worrying position already taken by the British government demonstrated by the defeat to the amendment designed to protect the residency rights of EU citizens undermines any attempts of the British government to protect human rights, given the disregard for the rights of those already living in the country.

It remains to be seen whether Theresa May’s government wants to pursue such policies. The current Prime Minister has an erratic record with regards to human rights, perhaps most controversially through her commitment to abolish the Human Rights Act and recently through her weak response to Trump’s travel ban. This is problematic as the entire human rights system rests upon being vocal when peers fail to live up to agreed standards as many of the treaties safeguarding these rights lack coercive measures should a state fail to adhere to their commitments.

group of protesters in street waving yellow and red flags

Kurdish demonstrators protest against the Turkish government in Milan in February this year
Photograph Tinxi / Shutterstock


Where Government chooses not to look, civil society has more room to shine a light. Fair trade campaigners are keen to highlight that changes to trade regulations, complex and abstract at the political-policy level, will have real consequences for millions of vulnerable farmers and workers in the poorest countries. Meanwhile, the Campaign Against the Arms Trade continues to hold the British government to account for selling weapons to Saudi Arabia.

There are many questions and negotiations to be faced in the coming two years, which include considerations about what kind of country Brexit Britain will be. While early signs indicate that Britain doesn’t seem to be interested in pursuing human rights obligations either domestically or abroad, the current Government would be well advised to approach Brexit in a collaborative manner that heeds the warnings and work of civil society.

Find out more: Politico – speeches that mattered in the House of Lords Brexit debate 

Thumbnail image: Francois Hollande with Theresa May in 2016 | Photograph Frederic Legrand – COMEO / Shutterstock



The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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