We are reforming the Government’s policy on “Overseas Security and Justice Assistance” (OSJA).
At the moment, the UK Government spends over £1 billion worth of taxpayers’ money helping foreign security forces. They do this using funding pots like the Conflict Stability and Security Fund (CSSF) and the Integrated Activity Fund (IAF).
When we give help to foreign countries, the UK has an opportunity to improve human rights standards. But there must be strict safeguards in place to make sure that we don’t end up helping our foreign partners to get involved in things like capital punishment and torture.
The UK does have a policy that requires all Government Departments to carry out a human rights risk assessment. That policy – called “Overseas Security and Justice Assistance” (OSJA) – is meant to make sure that help we give to other countries doesn’t end up enabling human rights abuses, like torture and the death penalty. But this is only the theory. In practice, the OSJA policy has done nothing to stop British aid going to foreign institutions which carry out human rights abuses.
In recent years, the OSJA policy has failed to block UK aid and assistance to human rights abusers. Recipients of assistance approved under the policy include notorious torture prisons in Bahrain; death penalty prosecutions in Pakistan and Sierra Leone; and investigators in the Saudi Arabian Ministry of the Interior who UK officials admitted might use the assistance “to identify individuals who later go on to be tortured”.
There are three key problems with the OSJA policy:
The OSJA policy fails to clearly state the legal standard that Ministers cannot authorise UK involvement in the death penalty and torture. In practice, this has let Ministers use their discretion to authorise assistance even where there is a real risk of torture or the imposition of the death penalty. This breaches domestic and international law, and goes against Britain’s values and foreign policy priorities.
The OSJA policy operates almost entirely in secret. This stops serious mistakes being identified and corrected. Despite promising that OSJA would prove the UK’s commitment to “tackling issues related to human rights in an open and transparent way”, the Government won’t reveal assessments carried out under OSJA. At the same time, assessments which the Government has been forced to release because of legal proceedings have revealed huge errors. These errors could have been corrected if the assessments had been public. We are not the only ones who have concerns about OSJA. The Home Affairs Committee questioned “whether the OSJA guidance is fit for purpose”.
The application of the OSJA policy varies by different public bodies and for the different types of assistance. All public bodies providing UK security assistance are technically subject to OSJA, but the policy is applied extremely inconsistently. Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee has warned of “duplication and inefficiency” arising from the overlap between OSJA and other human rights guidance, and said that a lack of individual responsibility for OSJA assessments is “worrying”.
There are a number of changes necessary to stop future UK involvement in abuses such as the death penalty and torture. A revised policy framework should:
- State clearly in law and in policy that Ministers cannot authorise UK involvement in the death penalty and torture;
- Replace the OSJA policy with one central system of tests for overseas assistance to make sure that it can never contribute to human rights abuses;
- State that human rights risk assessments should be shown to Parliament and the public, with redactions being made where appropriate in the case of sensitivities that are clearly justified.