Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg told MPs that the UK “always stands up for and speaks out on human rights.” He was replying to a point of order from Labour MP Valerie Vaz about Rees-Mogg’s accusation that Huffington Post journalist Arj Singh (see 18th March 2021) had distorted remarks made in an internal meeting by Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab.
Rees-Mogg said: “As he [Raab] made crystal clear in his full answer, the UK always stands up for and speaks out on human rights. 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.”
Mr Rees-Mogg’s claim that the UK “always stands up for and speaks out on human rights” was false. British support for human rights is selective. When Britain’s enemies (for instance Iran or Russia) are accused of breaching human rights Britain is quick to react. By contrast Britain protects allies (for instance Israel or Saudi Arabia). The Johnson government in general has a poor record of protecting human rights.
For example British civil courts and public enquiries have produced serious evidence of torture and other war crimes by UK forces in Iraq but there have been hardly any prosecutions. Despite this, the Johnson government proposed legislation that would have created a “presumption against prosecution” for members of the British armed forces accused to crimes, including torture, committed abroad more than five years earlier. The Overseas Operations bill set out to reduce the likelihood of British servicemen being held to account, although the government backed down on some of the worst elements following a major vote against it in the House of Lords.
Boris Johnson has opposed the International Criminal Court investigation into unlawful Israeli settlements in the West Bank and alleged war crimes by Israeli forces and Palestinian armed groups in Gaza. Human Rights Watch and others have long sought such a probe, which opens a long-awaited path to justice for Israeli and Palestinian victims of serious international crimes.
International trade secretary Liz Truss renewed arms sales to Saudi Arabia despite massive documentation of violations of the laws of war by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. While the Magnitsky sanctions (referred to by Dominic Raab in the quote above) are welcome, it is absurd to claim that the United Kingdom “always stands up for and speaks out on human rights.”
We tried to get firm evidence that Dominic Raab really did say at an internal FCDO meeting that the “the UK always stands up for and speaks out on human rights”, as Jacob Rees-Mogg told MPs. But when we asked the FCDO, permanent secretary Sir Philip Barton told us that “we will not provide a full transcript of comments that were made during an internal departmental meeting.”
Rees-Mogg’s attempt to justify his false claim against Huffington Post reporter Arj Singh led him to make a second false statement that the UK “always stands up for and speaks out on human rights.” Both false statements remain on the Hansard record in defiance of the Ministerial Code.