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British MPs seeking human rights clause for trade must know India can find new markets in EU

For the UK to retain the large share of India’s trade with EU, a new deal has to be signed. But the MPs’ demand to include a 'human rights' clause is like waving a red flag to the bull.

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The tone and tenor of the debate in the House of Commons Tuesday will be helpful in making necessary course corrections in the bilateral relationship between India and the United Kingdom, especially at a time when the latter is looking to resolve trade differences, increase its volume of business and make up for the losses due to Brexit.

The concern is understandable considering that post Brexit, the UK’s trade volumes will go in the negative unless it looks for new markets and trading partners and/or retains the older ones with fresh trade deals. Both India and the UK have been negotiating on signing a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) since the Brexit decision in June 2016. But FTA could not be concluded until the UK’s formal exit from the European Union.

According to a report in The Financial Express, Britain “accounted for 16 per cent of India’s $53.7-billion exports to the EU in FY20. The EU was the largest export destination for India in the last fiscal, with a 17 per cent share in the overall outbound shipments. Apart from garments, India exports gem and jewellery, pharmacy products, footwear, and organic chemicals to the UK in large volumes”.

If the UK has to retain this large share of India’s trade with the EU, a new trade deal will have to be signed. But the backbenchers’ demand to include a “guarantee human rights” clause is like waving a red flag to the bull. While India can find new markets in the EU or alternatively increase its quota, it is the UK which will face serious consequences.

Also read: Neo-nationalism defends Army’s rogue actions, but clean human rights record is key

Backbenchers’ agenda?

The House debate titled ‘India: Persecution of Minority Groups’ was the outcome of a report by backbench Members of Parliament led by Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MP from Northern Ireland Jim Shannon, who sought to highlight the “worrying and disturbing scale and trajectory” of the persecution being experienced in India by religious minorities.

There seems to be a genuine concern among some veteran and seasoned parliamentarians about improving relations with India and not to lose a valuable ‘Commonwealth’ partner and the commercial opportunities. This was evident from the pro-India interventions by cross-party parliamentarians and speeches of Conservative Party MP Theresa Villiers and Labour MP Barry Gardiner, speaking out in favour of India’s strong democratic and pluralistic credentials.

Incidentally, one member quoted Congress leader and Thiruvananthapuram MP Shashi Tharoor in her speech, saying, “It is time that (the Narendra) Modi government learn that they cannot promote ‘Make in India’ abroad while condoning the propagation of hate in India at home”. Not to speak of foreign governments, domestically too, one has to be prudent in criticising the government by resorting to canards. While they don’t give them credibility or even political mileage, such barbs can be used against us in international trade.

So what’s behind these MPs’ assertions and demands? The eight-member Backbench Business Committee of the British House of Commons, which was created on 15 June 2010 soon after the general election, is a select committee that seeks to determine the backbench business to be taken in the House and in Westminster Hall on days, or parts of days, allotted for backbench business.

The British Parliament suffered a major trust deficit after the parliamentarians’ ‘expenses scandals’ of 2009 rocked the House, forcing corrective but seemingly ineffective reforms including the formation of the backbench committee. These members don’t hold any government post. Going by the record of their activities, backbenchers do not seem to have much ability to influence government policy. At times they have reportedly exploited the internal power play in the ruling party to advance the agenda of the interested section of the representatives.

Also read: India using vaguely defined laws to stifle voices of activists, says UN human rights chief

Mixing trade with human rights

Trade agreements worldwide have increasingly included clauses that require the parties to meet certain conditions on human rights. These may include rights relating to labour conditions, political participation, environmental issues and standards in relation to specific goods. The UK’s Institute for Human Rights and Business has said that modern trade agreements often have clauses that support specific human rights goals, which cover areas such as adequate labour conditions and protection of labour rights, transparency and anti-corruption measures, environmental standards, guarantees of political participation, protection of indigenous and cultural rights, and standards with respect to specific commodities whose trade impacts on human rights. The institute estimated that over 80 per cent of all trade agreements signed since 2013 include labour provisions, and that more than 40 per cent of agreements since 2000 include anti-corruption and anti-bribery clauses that go beyond the World Trade Organization (WTO) rules.

Ironically, China has faulted on all of these issues concerning human rights and protection of cultural identity or on the issue of ‘forced labour’. It has more than 24 trade deals in the pipeline with 16 of them signed and implemented. None of them have any clause relating to any of these human rights goals.

Meanwhile, according to a dissent note of the WTO, linking trade deals with human rights obligations does not really help the cause nor are they optimum means to address the issue. While it is nobody’s argument to totally turn a blind eye to human rights issues, linking them with trade deals can be counterproductive too.

Also read: String of UN red flags about human rights violations – Is India’s global diplomatic clout fading?

Diplomatic victory

The British House of Commons showered copious amounts of praise on India for its religious diversity and its “rich tapestry of religious minorities alongside its sizable Hindu majority”. This can only be considered a significant diplomatic victory for India. The House highlighted the important work being done to promote UK-India dialogue on tackling shared global challenges.

India’s secular Constitution, largely copied from (British) India Act 1935, and its guarantees of equal rights to all citizens, was mentioned in the House by MP Nigel Adams. As the Minister for Asia, he assured the House that any “difficult issues” around human rights are raised in a free and open manner with Indian counterparts at the ministerial and consular level.

But as Conservative Party MP Theresa Anne Villiers rightly pointed out during the debate, no country seems to gather enough courage to impose such conditions on China “where incarceration and oppression of Uyghur Muslims is, quite frankly, a disgrace”.

Her words assume even greater importance considering the fact that no one raised the issue of European Union blatantly pushing under the carpet the issue of human rights violation in China only to get profitable contracts and cheaper investments. When it came to a similar deal with Vietnam, the European Parliament ratified the deal only after Hanoi passed the law for more rights to labour and ban forced labour. But in the case of China, the EU has scaled down many such restrictions. “We don’t use the same levers between China and Vietnam,” said the junior minister of France for trade Franck Riester.

If the British Parliament wishes to seriously consider its members’ viewpoints on mixing trade with human rights, then it ought to listen to all its MPs and not just a select few who depend on India’s opposition leaders to help frame their argument.

The author is the former editor of ‘Organiser’. Views are personal.

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  1. Look who’s talking about human rights!! UK is the world’s most racist, largest violator of human rights, protector of economic offenders of poorer countries, preaching about human rights. This is the biggest joke.

  2. Human Rights Clause should be the “agenda” of all good human beings. Why should… “India can find new markets in EU” because someone is insisting on her human rights report card? Does Modi government have anything to hide on that account?
    If any government thinks it can crush or mal-treat a section of its society, then God save that country.

  3. Brits were basically as bad as Nazis .. just that their crimes are not accounted for. Difference is today’s Germany is very different than Nazi Germany .. Not sure today’s Britain has come out of the hangover of the empire.

    In 7 years of world war 2, Nazis killed 6 million Jews and displaced some 12 million.. Britain (only in India, not rest of the colonies) between 1943 to 1948 was responsible for equal number or deaths ( 3 to 4 million in Bengal famine and 1 million during (poorly thought and implemented) partiton.. Partition also caused painful displacement of 10, 12 million refugees. Neuremberg trials were held against Nazis.. what about Brits?
    Next time, when we have some brit lecturing india on its systems, journalists should ask these people, Germany and Japan repent & regret for what happened in WW2.. what about you guys.. or you gonna remain shameless and in the colonial hangover forever? These guys should be shown the mirror immediately when they poke their nose..Atleast till the time a british head of state apologises even once..

  4. The anti-Indian/Modi elements in the British Parliament with their GORA and Oxford educated Indian supporters is something we have to live with.
    They talk of guarantee of human rights for trade deals as also” it is time that (the Narendra) Modi government learn that they cannot promote ‘Make in India’ abroad while condoning the propagation of hate in India at home.”
    They will not say a word about the fantastic system of harboring the super thieves and scoundrels of the world in LONDON for a fee under the garb of THEIR IMMIGRATION LAWS.
    These are the same people who keep quiet about the wonderful treatment of minorities in Pakistan and China, and feel no need to have conditions attached to trade deals with them.
    Accepting JAICHANDs is part of democracy. Finally who is responsible for propagation of hate in India or against a person in India, gets decided every 5 years.

  5. Don’t the British MPs know that India attained freedom 73 years back, and it is no longer a colony of the Britain. Why are the obsessed with India? I see the hand of lobbyists of Pakistan and China in this. Anyway, Britain is a declining power. Ignore their antics. Since Government of India does not protest against discussion of India matters in the British Parliament, I must assume that even after 73 years, people heading our government feel that the British Parliament is the Imperial parliament and India is accountable to it.

  6. The UK should first cease the practice of racial discrimination prevalent there.Religious divide was introduced by the colonial British during their rule which led to the partition of India on Religious basis.Yet India has the second largest Muslim population ,perhaps the only Muslim Community enjoying the benefits of a secular democracy.Ever since the BJP came to power in 2014 there has been no significant Communal disturbances, except for the stray Delhi episode.During the earlier regimes,especially during the Congress rule,Communal clashes were a regular event.Yet it has become fashionable to paint the BJP regime as promoting hatred of Muslims.The UK should first clean up their own house before preaching to others.

  7. a ‘human rights’ clause is like waving a red flag to the bull.- but the bulls are color blind, it does not matter whether the flag is red of white.

  8. What is wrong with the human rights clause? All the countries should put this condition on India! May be then India will start contolling its genocidal tendencies(1947,1984,1993,2001,2002).

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