There was “plainly a perception” that the issue had been downgraded in the Government’s dealings with countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain, the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee said.
The omission of Egypt and Bahrain from a Foreign Office list of countries requiring special attention helped foster the idea it “has become more hesitant in promoting and defending international human rights openly and robustly”, it said. Last year, the FCO’s most senior civil servant made a frank admission to MPs that human rights “is not one of our top priorities” and that the “prosperity agenda is further up the list”.
Ministers deny the issue has been downgraded but a string of trade-focused, red carpet visits to the UK by the leaders of countries with some of the worst records of rights abuses has reinforced the perception of a shift of diplomatic emphasis.
Middle East Minister Tobias Ellwood was singled out as a culprit, criticised for telling Parliament he couldn’t recall whether he raised human rights while leading a business delegation to Egypt and that relations between London and Cairo were “in a very positive place”.
“We are disappointed by (his) choice of language on this occasion and others which raises questions about how energetically the Government is raising human rights issues”, the committee concluded.
His “tone” in a debate about the death of Cambridge University student Giulio Regeni - and a visit to Egypt by the committee - suggested the UK “has not been supporting the Italian authorities as forcefully as his murder deserved”, the report said.
The Italian national’s body was found in a ditch days after he disappeared on the January 25 anniversary of the 2011 Egyptian uprising. The official explanation that he was the victim of robbers is disputed by experts.
Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said: “I do not recognise this characterisation of our human rights work.
“Improving human rights is a core function of the Foreign Office and is the responsibility of every British diplomat around the world.”