Policy paper

2010 to 2015 government policy: human rights internationally

Updated 8 May 2015

This is a copy of a document that stated a policy of the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government. The previous URL of this page was https://www.gov.uk/government/policies/promoting-human-rights-internationally. Current policies can be found at the GOV.UK policies list.


Many people around the world are denied their human rights every day.

The UK government supports human rights, democracy and good governance around the world to increase Britain’s security, to protect British citizens overseas, and to secure political freedom globally.


The Human Rights and Democracy Programme supports various projects, including those aimed at: preventing torture, abolishing the death penalty, increasing people’s freedom of expression, giving people freedom of religious belief, achieving gender equality and enabling them to take part in free elections.

Human Rights and Democracy: the 2014 Foreign & Commonwealth Office Report explains the government’s work to create democratic societies and promote human rights.

Democracy and the rule of law

The government supports democracy and the rule of law in a range of different ways. These include funding non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to increase citizen participation in political debate, reforming the European Court of Human Rights and working with regional and inter-governmental organisations and through the Westminster Foundation for Democracy.

Preventing torture

The government is working with other countries and organisations to prevent torture by funding projects to make criminal justice systems fairer and developing national organisations that can effectively monitor places of detention.

Abolishing the death penalty

The government is working with the EU and the UN to persuade other countries to abolish the death penalty. Our Strategy for Abolition of the Death Penalty 2010-2015 explains how the government persuades other governments to abolish the death penalty, funds projects to restrict the use of the death penalty and raises individual cases of British nationals sentenced to death overseas.

Supporting people’s freedom of expression

The government supports freedom of expression, including on the Internet, and will continue to press countries that restrict access to online media to uphold their international human rights commitments.

We believe that the right to freedom of expression applies, in principle, with equal force in cyberspace as elsewhere. We work with other countries to build a wider consensus about freedom of expression on the internet and to guard against the growing trend of political repression.

The UK joined the Freedom Online Coalition, a coalition of like-minded states that shares information on violations of freedom of expression and other human rights online, and cooperates in supporting and protecting human rights online.

Equality and non-discrimination

The UK works to support equality and non-discrimination for all people, including gender equality; upholding the rights of minority groups and lesbian, gay and transgender people; supporting the freedom of religion and belief.

Business and Human Rights

The government expects UK businesses to operate at all times in a way that is respectful of people’s human rights. In 2013, the UK launched a national action plan on business and human rights, becoming the first country to set out guidance to companies on integrating human rights into their operations.

In it we make clear the government’s duty to protect and promote human rights in the business context, outline our commitments to encourage good business practice by UK companies both domestically and internationally, and provide advice to UK companies to help them understand and manage human rights risk as part of their commercial activities.

The action plan is based on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights endorsed in the UN Human Rights Council in June 2011.


Who we’re working with

The UN Human Rights Council is the UN’s primary body for discussion and action on human rights issues. The UK is proud to have been re-elected to the Human Rights Council for the 2014-16 term. We were pleased with the outcomes from 2014, our first year back on the Council – during which we played an influential role to help the international community shine a light on human rights violations in many parts of the world, not least in Syria, DPRK and Sri Lanka. The Council has also achieved some notable successes on difficult thematic issues, including the UN’s second ever resolution on sexual orientation. We will continue to honour our ‘pledges and commitments’ and push for an effective Council.

We also seek complementary action on human rights in other parts of the UN, including through the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly, where all UN members can vote.

Based in The Hague, the International Criminal Court (ICC) is the first ever permanent court with the jurisdiction to prosecute individuals accused of the most serious crimes of international concern: genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. The Court was established by the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court. The ICC is an independent international organisation, and is not part of the United Nations system.

The Advisory Group of Human Rights, which consists of non-governmental experts, was created in 2010 to give the Foreign Secretary the best possible information about human rights challenges; and for the Foreign Office to benefit from outside advice on the conduct of its policy. The group discusses a wide range of human rights issues including those relating to conflict, security and counter-terrorism, the events of the Arab Spring, freedom of religion or belief, and business and human rights.

The UK has signed up to international commitments on gender equality, including the UN Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and its Optional Protocol, and the non-binding Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action for Women. The Government Equalities Office works with all UK government departments and the Devolved Administrations to ensure that we meet these commitments.

We work with UN Women to support gender equality, particularly through participating in the UN Commission on the Status of Women.

We work with the major EU institutions: the European Commission, the Council of the European Union (the Member States), the European Parliament to support equality and combat discrimination. We contribute to the development of common standards and regulations to protect UK interests and support best practices on equality.

We participate in a number of European Commission run groups on equality where we support UK policy and exchange best practice, including, EU Non-discrimination Governmental Expert Group, EU Commission’s Advisory Committee on Equal Opportunities for women and men and EU High-level Group on Gender Mainstreaming.

Within the Council of the European union, the governments of the EU Member States negotiate on equality and non-discrimination matters at the Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council.

The Council of Europe seeks to develop common and democratic principles based on the European Convention on Human Rights. Its work includes promoting gender equality and more recently lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGB&T) equality.

The Coalition Government is committed to strengthening its commitments with the Commonwealth. As a member of the Commonwealth, the UK supports the Commonwealth Gender Plan of Action (2005-2015). We work across the UK Government to implement our commitments in the Gender Plan of Action. We also liaise across government to co-ordinate, negotiate and present the UK’s position on gender equality, including the Women’s Affairs Ministerial Meeting (WAMM) and the Commonwealth Heads Of Government Meeting (CHOGM).

Appendix 1: Human Rights and Democracy programme

This was a supporting detail page of the main policy document. This content was withdrawn on 12 March 2015 because it was out of date.

The Human Rights and Democracy Programme (HRDP) is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s dedicated fund supporting human rights and democracy work overseas. The Programme aims to make a difference to people’s lives, helping to build the capacity of governments and civil society to promote and protect human rights. In 2012/13, we supported over 70 projects worldwide.

Human rights, democracy and the rule of law are at the heart of the Government’s foreign policy. The HRDP targets areas that are both important to us and where we consider we can make the greatest impact in delivering the FCO’s overarching purpose to “pursue an active and activist foreign policy, working with other countries and strengthening the rules-based international system in support of our values”.

Appendix 2: Democracy and the rule of law

This was a supporting detail page of the main policy document. This content was withdrawn on 12 March 2015 because it was out of date.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948, has been widely accepted as the fundamental norms of human rights that everyone should respect and protect. A series of other international human rights treaties support the UDHR and the International Bill of Human Rights to form the basis of international human rights standards.

Spreading democracy

The UK believes that democracy is the system of government that provides the most accountable and responsive states able to safeguard people’s human rights and achieve development. We work to support democracy in individual countries, taking account of the individual characteristics of each country, its history and its culture.

Reforming the European Court of Human Rights

On 7 November 2011 the UK became the Chair of the Council of Europe for 6 months. The theme of the chairmanship was the protection and promotion of human rights. In particular, the UK-led reforms of the European Court of Human Rights.

The government saw the Court’s main challenges as:

  • the Court should be free to deal with the most serious violations of human rights; it should not be overloaded with an endless backlog of cases
  • the Court should hold us all to account; it should not undermine its own reputation by revisiting national decisions where it does not need to

The Brighton Declaration, reached at a two-day conference of the Council of Europe in April 2012, made clear that responsibility for guaranteeing human rights rests with the government, parliament and courts of a country.

The Council agreed to amend the European Convention on Human Rights so that trivial cases can be rejected, to reduce the time limit for claims from six months to four, and to improve the selection process for judges.

Appendix 3: Equality and non-discrimination

This was a supporting detail page of the main policy document. This content was withdrawn on 12 March 2015 because it was out of date.

Freedom of religion or belief

The right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief is guaranteed by major international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the 1981 United Nations Declaration on Religious Intolerance.

A Freedom of Religion or Belief “toolkit”, published by the FCO, helps our staff overseas raise concerns about religious freedom with host governments, take action on cases of persecution or discrimination and lobby for changes in discriminatory practices and laws.

Gender equality

The UK is committed to gender equality and women’s empowerment and participated in international, intergovernmental mechanisms for the advancement of women’s rights. Our work is guided by the UN Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Platform for Action adopted at the Fourth World Conference on Women convened by the UN in Beijing in 1995.

CEDAW is an international convention adopted in 1979 by the United Nations General Assembly. It defines what constitutes discrimination against women and a commitment for national action to end such discrimination. To date it has been ratified by 186 countries. It is also known as the international bill of Rights for Women.

The Government Equalities Office takes the lead coordinating the production of the UK Periodic Report to CEDAW (every four years). The UK was examined in July 2013 and the CEDAW committee issued a number of observations and recommendations following the examination. The next periodic report is due in July 2017.

The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (BPfA) is an international declaration of women’s rights set up at the UN’s landmark Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995. It was supported by 189 countries. The BPfA covers 12 key critical areas of concern or areas for action including, women and poverty, violence against women and access to power and decision-making.

In June 2000, the UN General Assembly adopted a political declaration reaffirming Member States’ commitment to the objectives set forth in the BPfA and a Special Session was held by the General Assembly in 2005 to review Member States’ progress in implementing the BPfA. The UK took an active role in the process. 2010 was the 15th anniversary of the BPfA (Beijing +15). In 2009, the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) circulated a questionnaire to assess progress on Beijing +15 to all UNECE members and the UK responded with a full report.

The Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), established through the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), is one of the main international policy-making bodies dedicated exclusively to gender equality and the advancement of women. CSW meets annually in February/March at the UN headquarters in New York to discuss and negotiate the text of a number of ‘agreed conclusions’ around a priority theme and related Resolutions proposed by States.

This theme changes annually and is set out in the multi-year programme of work. The 58th session of CSW is scheduled for 10 to 21 March 2014 and the priority theme is ‘Challenges and achievements in the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals for women and girls’. The UK has a longstanding commitment to the CSW and participates actively in the annual meeting.

We work to support gender equality through participation in The Council of Europe’s newly established Gender Equality Commission (GEC).

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual rights

The UK works towards protecting and promoting the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual people internationally, including through intergovernmental organisations such as the EU, Council of Europe and UN, and through our overseas missions.

The first ever UK cross government Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Equality Action Plan, published in March 2011, reinforced our commitment to supporting LGB&T rights abroad.

We support LGB&T equality at the United Nations and played an active role in the adoption of the UN Human Rights Council historic resolution expressing grave concern about acts of violence and discrimination against individuals because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. We welcomed the UN report by the High Commissioner for Human Rights examining discrimination and violence facing LGB&T people.

Indigenous and minority groups

We condemn all instances of violence and discrimination against people from indigenous and minority groups. We believe, as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People states, that the best way to support indigenous people is through direct consultation with both them and others affected by the issue, including regional organisations and the UN.