Boris Johnson greeting the president of Egypt, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, back in January 2020. The government’s recent trade agreement with Egypt has paid little heed to its human rights abuses. Photo: Anthony Harvey/Shutterstock

No deal should trade away human rights

We need to return to an ethical foreign policy, making decisions based on what is good for the world, not just in the UK’s narrow interest
March 2, 2021

Three things were entirely predictable when the government resumed control over the UK’s trade policy after almost 50 years of decisions being made at the European level.

The first was the clash between the government’s conviction that we would have brand new trade deals across the world ready to take effect as soon as we left the EU, and the hard reality that trade negotiations are never so quick or simple.

The second, related, was that the government would hugely underestimate the loss of exports of goods and services to Europe caused by introducing friction into that trading relationship, and would hugely overestimate the gains to be made elsewhere.

Thirdly, it was entirely foreseeable that the government would not be prepared for the range of tough decisions it would need to take as an independent trading nation, having outsourced them to Brussels for so long.

Together, these failings comprise our current mess of a trade policy, with the government simultaneously pretending that the crises facing UK exporters to Europe are just teething problems, all the while rushing to join a new trade bloc with other countries without a clue of the terms, and enraging its own backbenchers by insisting on its untrammelled right to do trade deals with countries committing genocide.

For progressive onlookers, this last point is particularly alarming because, as sure as night follows day, a government desperate to fill a void in trade—and to prove it can sign deals with other countries—will give short shrift to anything getting in its way, including concern for human rights.

This is a government that has already repeatedly shown that it has to be forced by the courts—or by images on the news—to take into account the human rights abuses of overseas governments when deciding whether or not to sell them arms.

But at least the decisions the government takes on arms exports are governed by a legal framework, subjected to formal parliamentary scrutiny and open to judicial review.

The new decisions it can take as an independent trading nation on which countries it signs trade deals with are not subject to those constraints, and—as we saw with their resistance to the genocide amendment—ministers are determined to keep it that way.

After all, if the government is not required to consider the human rights records of its potential trade partners—or how they treat their workers or the environment—then why would it?

While that debate has inevitably focused on a hypothetical trade deal with China, I have been at pains to point out that there are other very real trade deals that illustrate the point equally well.

In December, the government signed rollover deals with Egypt and Cameroon, maintaining the preferential trade we had with them within the EU, despite their recent record as two of the worst human rights abusers in the world.

There was no attempt to strengthen the human rights provisions in the new agreements, and, of course, no debate on either deal in parliament. These were not one-offs, but a clear sign of things to come.

“If the government is not required to consider the human rights records of its potential trade partners, then why would it?”

I have spoken on many occasions of the need for Labour in government to return to Robin Cook’s vision of an ethical foreign policy, taking decisions on issues like trade and arms sales based on what is good for the world, not just the UK’s bottom line. That has to remain our commitment.

But right now, our collective job in opposition is to stop the government heading ever more rapidly in the opposite direction. That is the predictable consequence of their current policy, but we cannot let it become the inevitable outcome.