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UK prioritisation of human rights

Integrated review of 2021 and refresh of 2023

The Government’s 2021 Integrated Review of defence, security, development and foreign policy said the UK would “increase [its] efforts to protect open society and democratic values where these are being undermined”. The Government said it would uphold human rights by:

  • Using its independent (“Magnitsky style”) sanctions to “hold to account those involved in serious human rights abuses” (see the below section on the UK sanctions regime).
  • Supporting open societies by strengthening effective governance and justice reform.
  • Developing common agendas with other countries, such as those in the G7, and civil society groups.
  • Focusing efforts on the wider European neighbourhood, East Africa, and the Indo-Pacific, and “tailoring [its] approach to meet local needs” to defend human rights and promote gender equality.
  • Working though international bodies such as the UN and the Council of Europe.

Government human rights and democracy report

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) publishes an annual reports on Democracy and human rights. This report human rights assesses the situation in 32 “human rights priority counties”, including Columbia, Mali, Myanmar, South Sudan, and Yemen. In its most recent report, covering 2022, the Government said:

Too many repressive governments have chosen to disregard their international commitments, and rule through discrimination, persecution and violence.

The below provides a summary of the UK Government assessment for 2022 in four situations, all of which are listed as “human rights priority countries”.


The Government said human rights “deteriorated” in 2022, with the rights of women and girls particularly damaged by Taliban rule (see Commons Library debate briefing, Support for Afghan women and girls, May 2023, for background). In response, the UK Government said it has:


In 2022, the Government said the human rights situation “remain[ed] a serious concern”, with restrictions against human rights defenders and political opposition. It also said there were “restrictions on Rohingya livelihoods, movement, and education”, though some “positive developments” in Bangladesh included a reduction in extra-judicial killings and abductions. The UK Government has also introduced sanctions against the members of the Myanmar Armed Forces, which it says were engaged in “ethnic cleansing” against that Rohingya in neighbouring Myanmar.

Parliamentary elections took place in Bangladesh on 7 January 2024. The FCDO released a statement after conclusion of the elections stating that they were “concerned at the significant number of arrests of opposition party members before polling day” and condemned “the acts of intimidation and violence that took place prior to and during the campaign period”.

The Commons Library debate briefing, Support for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, April 2023, provides more on support for Rohingya refugees.


The Government said there continued to be “widespread restrictions and violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms” in China in 2022. This included “systematic human rights violations in Xinjiang”. In its 2023 refresh of the 2021 Integrated Review, the Government also argued that China is “challenging the centrality of human rights and freedoms in the UN system”.

The UK Government says the former Foreign Secretary, James Cleverly, raised violations in Xinjiang directly with the Chinese Government when he visited Beijing in 2023. The Government has also raised “grave concerns” about violations in Xinjiang at the UN, and imposed asset freezes and travel bans on those involved under the UK Global Human Rights sanctions regime.

The Lords Library briefing, China: Allegations of human rights abuses, November 2022 and Commons Library debate briefings, The Uygur tribunal, January 2022 and Persecution of Buddhists in Tibet, December 2023, provide background on reports of human rights abuses in China.

Occupied Palestinian Territories

In 2022, the Government said violations by the Government of Israel in the context “of Israel’s occupation” of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem “intensified”, while Hamas, when in control of the entirety of Gaza, also committed “increase[ing] human rights abuses”. It also said the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank “continued to breach fundamental freedoms”.

In 2022 and 2023, the UK Government called on the Israeli Government to halt its settlement expansion and to take steps against settler violence, while in 2022 it called upon the Palestinian Authority to establish a national preventive mechanism against torture.

The Commons Library debate pack, Human rights protection for Palestinians, April 2023, provides further information on the situation. The Commons Library research briefing, 2023/24 Israel-Hamas conflict: UK and international response, January 2024, includes UK Government statements on international humanitarian law during the Israel-Hamas conflict.

UK human rights sanctions regime

The UK’s global human rights sanctions regime is provided for in the Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations 2020, in force since July 2020. The Government says the regime sanctions regime is intended to deter, and provide accountability for, activities which, if carried out by or on behalf of a state, would amount to a serious violation of certain human rights by that state.

The regulations provide for sanctions to be adopted in response to actions that would usually (if carried out by or on behalf of a state) amount to a serious violation of the following three human rights:

  • The right to life.
  • The right not to be subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
  • The right to be free from slavery, not to be held in servitude or required to perform forced or compulsory labour, whether or not the activity is carried out by or on behalf of a State.

Persons undertaking or involved in these activities can be designated for the purpose of a travel ban or an asset freeze.

The Office for Financial Sanctions publishes a list of designated targets under the global human rights sanctions regime. This was last updated on 8 December 2023, and includes sanctions against 96 individuals and 11 organisations.

To mark the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in December 2023, the UK announced sanctions in coordination with the United States and Canada against those involved in forced labour operations in southeast Asia and government-linked officials in Belarus, Haiti, Iran and Syria complicit in repressing individual freedoms.

The UK also manages separate sanctions regimes against individual states, including Afghanistan, Iran and Myanmar. In December, a new sanctions against Iran came into force. One of its grounds on which the UK can sanction individuals or entities is “the Iranian regime’s undermining of democracy, respect for the rule of law and good governance”.

UK aid programmes

The Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) published a review of UK aid to support democracy and human rights in 2023, on which around £1.4 billion was spent from 2016 to 2021. Aid and development programmes examined included the work of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, Magna Carta Fund and the Open Government Partnership.

The ICAI rated UK aid spending on democracy and human rights as Green/Amber (the second highest possible rating) and found it was able to produce useful results and prioritised many excluded groups:

We identified examples of good delivery, with successful programmes building effective coalitions, working on locally salient issues and operating with longer timeframes. They provided effective support for women, youth, and people with disabilities, but less consistently for minorities, LGBT+ people, journalists and human rights defenders. There were also good results from support for elections, parliaments, political parties, media, transparency and human rights.

However, the ICAI report rated the “coherence” of the UK’s aid efforts as “Amber/Red” (the second lowest possible rating). It argued that the FCDO has a “declining reputation” in being a “thought leader and reliable global actor” on democracy and human rights. The ICAI argued this was the result of the loss of expertise due to the merger of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office with the Department for International Development in 2020 and that “high policy ambition [was] not matched by sufficient or predictable budgets” (democracy and human rights expenditure fell by 33% in 2020, from £220 million to £148 million).

The Government welcomed the ICAI report and said it was developing a new strategy on open societies, democracy and political rights and would implement reforms to use expertise more effectively.

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