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22 Feb 2016

Patrick Wintour, Guardian (UK)

Department for Business 'failing to uphold human rights commitments'

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Civil servants in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills are giving British companies the all-clear to press ahead with contracts even though they are likely to lead to human rights abuses, the foreign affairs select committee will be told on Tuesday. The all-party committee is investigating whether the Foreign Office has downgraded its commitment to defending human rights in favour of a more commercial and trade-driven approach. MPs on the committee decided to hold the brief inquiry after Sir Simon McDonald, permanent secretary at the Foreign Office, said human rights no longer had the “profile” within his department they had in the past. Amnesty International, due to give evidence to the committee, claims a little-known UK National Contact Point (NCP) in BIS has been charged with handling any complaints that a private sector contract conflicts with the UK’s human rights commitments. It says the panel of civil servants is “unqualified to make complex human rights judgments and lacking the resources to properly investigate claims put to them”...Amnesty claims the system of handling complaints is “inconsistent, unreliable, biased towards businesses and out of kilter with the standards it is supposed to uphold”.  The group found that 60% of human rights complaints in the past five years have been rejected without full investigation, leaving individuals and whole communities at greater risk of abuse. A further 12% have been referred to other NCPs that exist in 45 other countries. It was also taking more than six months on average for a complaint to complete its initial assessment, and longer complaints can take as long as two years. Amnesty also claims the UK insists that complainants put forward a level of evidence higher than that required by the OECD guidelines and higher than that which the companies are required to provide in their defence.