The Human Rights – Trade Dilemma of a Post-Brexit Global Britain

Blake Lawrinson, PhD Candidate at the University of Leeds, writes on the relationship between human rights and trade interests in post-Brexit UK foreign policy. 



As the United Kingdom (UK) and European Union (EU) edge closer to the end of the Brexit transition period, a trade deal remains the most contested issue on both sides of the negotiating table.

The end of the transition period also coincides with a complex international political landscape, which raises questions about the UK’s post-Brexit world role. The COVID-19 pandemic, the outcome of the United States (US) election, and relations with Russia and China are just some examples of the challenges facing UK domestic and foreign policy.

In this ECR2P Fresh Perspectives blog, I focus on a particular aspect of this international landscape through the relationship between human rights and trade interests in UK foreign policy. I argue that whilst the UK must continue to uphold its commitment to the protection of human rights both domestically and internationally, this will come under increasing pressure and scrutiny as it negotiates post-Brexit trade deals while also continuing its contributions to the global arms industry.


The context: Human rights and trade

Whether through the promotion of an ethical dimension in foreign policy, liberal internationalism, or liberal conservativism, successive UK governments have underlined their commitment to protecting domestic and international human rights. The 2019 Conservative election manifesto suggested the UK was ‘a champion of collective security, the rule of law, human rights, free trade’.

Alongside this commitment, the UK has upheld its role as a top 10 country in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Post-Brexit, the UK’s Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, has emphasised the ‘new free trade deals’ that the UK can negotiate in a world where it ‘will be a force for good’ and ‘trade more liberally’.

Notwithstanding the considerable complexity of trade negotiations, this duel commitment to human rights and trade raises important questions about whether it is possible to reconcile these two interests in the foreign policy of a Global Britain.


Post-Brexit trade deals and human rights

On the basis of UK government rhetoric alone, one could be forgiven for perceiving post-Brexit trade negotiations and agreements as a relatively straightforward process. Of course, a post-Brexit landscape allows the UK to sign free trade agreements with other countries, but this does not necessarily translate into absolute freedom over the terms of a trade deal.

At its most basic, agreeing a trade deal involves a two-way negotiation. The UK will negotiate with the most powerful global economies, notable among these being the US and China. No matter the impression that the UK attempts to convey about its perceived global role, it is far from a superpower in these negotiations.

It has been reported that in the pursuit of progress on post-Brexit trade deals, the UK ‘has received demands to roll back its human rights standards’. Although not specifying which standards, former International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, gave an example of ‘human rights elements’ in existing EU trade deals, but argued that Britain ‘is not inclined to do so’ since ‘the value we attach to human rights is an important part of who we are as a country’.

As UK negotiators discuss trade deals with countries around the world, will they be up front about human rights? With China, for example, will the UK openly voice its concerns about the plight of the Uyghurs and Turkic Muslims? This is just one example of the potential challenge of reconciling between human rights and trade interests in the UK’s foreign policy.


The UK arms industry: A human rights – trade dilemma?

The most glaring example of the human rights – trade dilemma is the UK’s substantial arms export industry. In the last decade alone, the UK ranks as the second largest arms exporter behind the US with over £100 billion in contracts.

The civil war in Yemen has brought increased attention to the UK arms export industry, particularly with Saudi Arabia. Statistics show that the UK ‘has licensed at least 4.7bn of arms exports to Saudi Arabia and £860m to its coalition partners’ since the beginning of the Yemen civil war in 2015.

In 2019, the UN Secretary-General referred to Yemen as ‘the world’s worst humanitarian crisis’, with yearly reports of thousands of casualties and injuries.  As of 2019, the UK government reported a contribution of £570m in bilateral support to Yemen. However, as a 2020 Human Rights Council report outlines, the UK and other states also ‘continued their support of parties to the conflict, including through arms transfers, thereby helping to perpetuate the conflict’.

Whilst it is important to clarify that the UK is not part of the international coalition nor involved in any military operations in Yemen, the UK’s arms exports industry reveals a potentially serious contradiction in the UK’s commitment to protecting human rights and providing bilateral aid on the one hand, and its trade commitments through arms exports on the other. A 2016 report by the Business, Innovation and Skills and International Development Committees concluded that in relation to Yemen ‘the very rules the UK championed – represented by the Arms Trade Treaty – are at risk of unravelling’.

In response to the UK’s export of arms to Saudi Arabia, Boris Johnson reiterated that the UK has ‘one of the most robust systems in the world’ on arms licences. Despite a halt in arms sales following a successful legal challenge from the Campaign Against Arms Control (CAAT) in June 2019,  the UK has since recommenced its arms exports to Saudi Arabia.

It is important to note that this dilemma between arms exports and human rights is not a new issue in UK foreign policy nor exclusively levelled against the Conservative Party. Under the New Labour government, the appeal to ‘an ethical dimension’ and human rights  was somewhat contradicted by the importance attached to the UK arms export industry.


Conclusion: Human rights and trade in a post-Brexit Global Britain

The relationship between the UK’s commitment to human rights on the one hand and trade on the other is an incredibly complex dynamic capable of highlighting serious limits and potential contradictions of foreign policy in a post-Brexit Global Britain. The issue of this relationship is unlikely to go away as the UK continues its arms exports, whilst pursuing trade deals with countries under the global spotlight for alleged human rights abuses. Simply overlooking these issues will do little to reinforce a commitment to upholding human rights.

Blake Lawrinson, PhD Candidate in UK foreign policy at the University of Leeds.


If you are interested in submitting a blog post for the ECR2P’s Fresh Perspectives series, then please contact Richard Illingworth by Email ( or Twitter (@RJI95).


Title image credit: Photo by James Giddins on Unsplash.