John Grantchester on worrying developments in the government’s approach to trade agreements
The UK has had a busy few weeks of trade developments. Negotiations were launched on the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, an Australian deal was partially announced, and the Trade Remedies Authority’s recommendations came out on steel imports. And tomorrow, in the House of Lords, the government will also have to respond to a debate – and likely vote – on a Regret Motion I've tabled concerning the UK-Cameroon Economic Partnership Agreement.
Labour wants good trade deals which grow our economy, stimulate sectors, and protect livelihoods and standards. But with recent developments, ministers appear to be prioritising trade at any cost – even if it means selling out British farmers, failing British steel or abandoning British values.
While accounting for only 0.1% of our total trade, the UK/Cameroon deal means much more for human rights and scrutiny. It is well known that, since 2017, Cameroon government forces have committed widespread abuse across the country’s Anglophone regions. The UN estimates that 3,500 people have died and 700,000 have been displaced. Suspected violations include extra-judicial killings, torture, destruction of property, fair trial violations, and inhumane and degrading conditions of detention.
Incidents have been painfully logged by the Faculty of Law at University of Oxford, including a media report from May 2019 that included this harrowing account: “the military came in as the mother was struggling to prepare food for the family. The soldiers came in and went to the child and shot the child in the back of the head.” The report continued with a call to the international community to “help us”.
This incident is heart-breaking, but it is not isolated. Human Rights Watch have said that “government forces committed widespread human rights abuses ... throughout 2020.” Yet, the UK has since rolled over trade arrangements with the Cameroon regime. And all despite the Foreign Secretary saying in January that “we shouldn't be engaged in free-trade negotiations with countries abusing human rights”, or his ministerial colleague in the Lords repeatedly stating that “trade does not have to come at the expense of human rights." The gap between the government's rhetoric and actions is clearly vast.
By signing this agreement, the UK is somewhat out of step with the United States, which has terminated Cameroon’s eligibility for trade preference benefits due to the Biya regime’s “persistent gross violations of internationally recognised human rights”. That wasn’t under President Biden by the way, but his predecessor. So, if Trump could do the right thing, then why not Liz Truss or Boris Johnson?
The UK government has persistently tried to avoid scrutiny. On 27 December, the UK and Cameroon agreed through a Memorandum of Understanding to maintain the effects of the EU-Central Africa Agreement and apply tariff preferences. This came into effect four days later, but the Memo wasn’t published for four months. The government then announced the signing of a new deal in March, the text of which appeared at the end of April. And there are still no economic or scoping assessments.
MPs have not even had a chance to have a proper say on the matter. Truss has rejected requests for a Commons debate, citing a 14-minute discussion that took place in 2010 on the EU Cameroon Agreement – even though open conflict against English-speakers began in 2017. Nothing screams confidence in your own deal than refusing to discuss the detail because something similar happened over a decade ago.
Ultimately, this agreement is disheartening. Only a few months ago, ministers argued forcefully against Labour’s human rights amendment to the Trade Bill. Now, we have a deal with a regime that has a terrible human rights record, and which takes us in the opposite direction of our closest allies. Pressing our Regret Motion is not a decision we will take lightly. But the serious implications of the agreement for both the English speaking populations of Cameroon and future trade deals means a vote might be the only way to get ministers to respond to our concerns.
Lord John Grantchester is a Shadow BEIS & International Trade Minister in the House of Lords
Published 28th June 2021