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

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.

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.

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.

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.