Dominic Raab has denied saying the UK wants to trade with countries that violated human rights laws after a call with colleagues was leaked to the press.
In a leaked video call listened to by HuffPost UK, the foreign secretary is heard telling departmental staff that only trading with countries that meet European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) standards would mean missing out on trade with future “growth markets”.
In a question and answer session, the minister is heard saying he “squarely” believes Britain “ought to be trading liberally around the world”.
“If we restrict it to countries with ECHR-level standards of human rights, we’re not going to do many trade deals with the growth markets of the future.”
He continued: “We don’t junk whole relationships because we’ve got issues – we have a conversation because we want to change the behaviour.
“And I think we’re in a much better position to do that if we’re willing to engage. […]
“I can think of behaviour that would cross the line and render a country beyond the pale.
“But fundamentally, I’m a big believer in engaging to try and exert positive influence even if it’s only a moderating influence, and I hope that calibrated approach gives you a sense that it’s not just words – we back it up with action.”
Raab’s comment came after the government released a major review of foreign policy, which includes plans for a post-Brexit tilt towards the Indo-Pacific region and acknowledging China as a “systemic challenge”.
Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, Lisa Nandy, said this was the second time in as many weeks that “that the foreign secretary has exposed for talking up trade deals with countries that abuse human rights”.
“It is the latest example of a government entirely devoid of a moral compass and riddled with inconsistency, happy to say one thing in public and another behind closed doors.”
She added: “The foreign secretary is sending a very clear message to countries engaged in appalling human rights abuses that this government welcomes them with open arms.”
Amnesty International UK branded the comments “shocking” and fit “a depressing pattern on human rights from this government”.
Director Kate Allen said: “So-called ‘growth markets’ – countries like India, Indonesia or Brazil – are often precisely places where human rights protections are fragile and under threat.
“And in some countries such as Myanmar, the army has control of economic activity which directly funds its military operations, including those implicated in human rights abuses.
“Trade that arises from or contributes to human rights violations can never be truly sustainable.
“Companies will rightly worry about their obligations to avoid involvement in human rights abuse, investors will take fright and the whole edifice will come tumbling down.”
A Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office spokesperson claimed the audio had been “deliberately and selectively clipped to distort the foreign secretary’s comments”.
They added: “As he made crystal clear in his full answer, the UK always stands up for and speaks out on human rights.
“In his full answer, in an internal meeting, he highlighted examples where the UK has applied Magnitsky sanctions [sanctions to specific individuals and organisations rather than entire countries] and raised issues at the UN regardless of trade interests, and that this was a responsible, targeted and carefully calibrated approach to bilateral relations.”