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Press Release

2 Feb 2023

Post-Brexit UK trade agreements fail to protect human rights

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As UK Trade Minister Greg Hands arrives in Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore for high level trade talks, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) published new analysis suggesting UK trade agreements are putting diplomatic relations ahead of human rights protections.

BHRRC analysed how UK trade agreements – including those currently under negotiation – measure up on human rights, with results revealing the UK Government is failing to proactively promote human rights in its trade policy. Where UK trade agreements do contain commitments to human rights, these tend to be difficult to enforce and therefore are unlikely to be effective at supporting rights. While international trade and investment has the potential to drive shared prosperity and sustainable development, this new analysis suggests the UK’s trade agreements are so far falling short.

Having left the European Union, the UK is operating a fully independent trade policy for the first time in decades. Free Trade Agreements have been finalised with the EU, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, while negotiations are ongoing with Canada, the CPTPP, the Gulf Cooperation Council, India, Mexico, South Korea and Switzerland.

BHRRC has set out four key human rights tests to analyse whether these are responsible agreements which uphold human rights, or whether they could lead to harm for workers and communities. The tests call for trade agreements to:

  • contain enforceable human rights conditions;
  • be subject to an independent human rights and environmental impact assessment;
  • contain enforceable human rights obligations on businesses and investors;
  • exclude the investor-state dispute settlement mechanism.

BHRRC found the UK’s trade agreements perform poorly against these tests. In addition, the UK has failed to either conduct an independent human rights and environmental impact assessment of any FTAs or to commit to such assessments in future negotiations.

Tom Wills, Project Manager – Corporate Accountability & Trade, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, said: “It’s been three years since the UK left the European Union, finding itself in a position to develop a fully independent trade policy for the first time in decades. But we are yet to see any indication of how the UK’s trade agreements will support the country’s broader international goals on human rights and the climate.

“UK ministers are dragging the country into low-standards agreements without considering how trade negotiations can be used to establish a strong minimum standard of rights protections.  The resulting agreements will fail to respect the rights of workers and communities – particularly those in the Global South. It’s time the UK set out a clear trade strategy; one which outlines exactly how its trade policy will support human rights and the climate – as well as how each trade agreement will meet the four tests set out by us. Without action, the UK is at urgent risk of becoming a market for goods tainted with forced labour and environmental destruction. The UK has a unique opportunity here to put human rights at the heart of global trade.”


Notes to editors:

  • The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre is an international NGO that tracks the human rights impacts (positive and negative) of more than 10,000 companies across nearly 200 countries. When an allegation is made against a company, we offer that company the opportunity to respond and present the information in full on our website.
  • Tests for UK trade agreements: Four key tests to distinguish responsible trade deals which enhance human rights from those which could lead to harm for workers and communities.
  • UK mHREDD hub: The latest updates, statistics and case studies demonstrating the extent to which UK companies and their supply chains are implicated in human rights and environmental abuses.