Foreign secretary Dominic Raab has told officials that the UK intends to strike trade deals with countries that fail to meet European standards on human rights.
The shocking admission was made in a call with Foreign Office staff on Tuesday (16 March), a recording of which was leaked to HuffPost.
Speaking in a question and answer session with thousands of Whitehall workers, Rabb said that only trading with countries that meet European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) standards would mean the UK missing out on trade with future “growth markets”.
“I squarely believe we ought to be trading liberally around the world,” he said. “If we restrict it to countries with ECHR-level standards of human rights, we’re not going to do many trade deals with the growth markets of the future.”
He then continued: “We don’t junk whole relationships because we’ve got issues – we have a conversation because we want to change the behaviour.
“I think we’re in a much better position to do that if we’re willing to engage … I can think of behaviour that would cross the line and render a country beyond the pale.
“But fundamentally I’m a big believer in engaging to try and exert positive influence even if it’s only a moderating influence, and I hope that calibrated approach gives you a sense that it’s not just words – we back it up with action.”
Raab’s words came weeks after the UK brokered a trade deal with Ghana amid a worrying surge of anti-LGBT+ sentiment in the country.
The £1.2billion deal was signed by trade secretary Liz Truss in spite of her role as co-chair of the Equal Rights Coalition, a global partnership working to protect the human rights of LGBT+ people around the world.
This was followed by the release of a new foreign policy document setting out Boris Johnson’s plans for an “Indo-Pacific tilt” away from traditional partners in Europe.
Responding to Raab’s comments, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy said: “It is the latest example of a government entirely devoid of a moral compass and riddled with inconsistency, happy to say one thing in public and another behind closed doors.
“Today the prime minister stood up in parliament and lauded the UK’s commitment to defending human rights around the world. This afternoon, the foreign secretary is sending a very clear message to countries engaged in appalling human rights abuses that this government welcomes them with open arms.”
It fits a depressing pattern on human rights from this government
Amnesty International accused Raab of throwing human rights campaigners “to the wolves”, saying his comments would “send a chill down the spine of embattled human rights activists right across the globe”.
“This apparent willingness to sacrifice human rights at the altar of trade is shocking, but sadly unsurprising. It fits a depressing pattern on human rights from this government,” said the organisation’s UK director Kate Allen.
“Trade is obviously important to all nations, but the foreign secretary shouldn’t be throwing human right defenders to the wolves like this.
“So-called ‘growth markets’ – countries like India, Indonesia or Brazil – are often precisely places where human rights protections are fragile and under threat.
“And in some countries such as Myanmar, the army has control of economic activity which directly funds its military operations, including those implicated in human rights abuses.”
A Foreign Office spokesperson said: “We regret that this audio has been deliberately and selectively clipped to distort the foreign secretary’s comments. As he made crystal clear in his full answer, the UK always stands up for and speaks out on human rights.”
The HuffPost journalist who wrote the report, Arj Singh, denies the clip the outlet received was edited in any manner and that it was quoted in full.
The Foreign Office continued: “In his full answer, in an internal meeting, he highlighted examples where the UK has applied Magnitsky sanctions and raised issues at the UN regardless of trade interests, and that this was a responsible, targeted and carefully-calibrated approach to bilateral relations.”
In a message entitled “TRUST” sent on Wednesday (17 March), Foreign Office under-secretary Philip Barton rebuked staffers for “significant breaches of the trust placed in us”.
“That was an unprofessional, unwarranted and self-defeating act,” he said, adding that those who brought Raab’s comments to light “should be ashamed of what they have done”.