The British government has downgraded the global abolition of the death penalty on the list of priorities for its international human rights fund, BuzzFeed News can reveal, following a change in focus after the Conservative election victory that opponents say is a sop to nations such as China and Saudi Arabia.
The abolition of the death penalty was the top objective in 2014-15 of the Foreign Office's Human Rights and Democracy Programme, a fund that awards millions of pounds a year to organisations in other countries in order to "promote and protect" human rights.
However, after the Conservatives won an outright majority at the 2015 general election, officials changed the fund's priorities "in line with manifesto commitments".
These changes saw abolition of the death penalty reduced from being the fund's top objective to a passing reference in the final bullet point, according to documents released under the Freedom of Information Act.
Abolition of the death penalty is now hidden in a subsection under the jargon-heavy objective of introducing a global "human rights risk-management approach to security and justice interventions".
This is where abolition of the death penalty used to be on the list of the fund's priorities:
The Liberal Democrats said the priorities were changed because the government wants nothing to "come between potential trade with countries like China and Saudi Arabia, who happen to be ardent proponents of the death penalty".
The UK has made a strong pitch to the Chinese government for investment in major infrastructure projects such as the Hinckley Point nuclear power plant and the High Speed 2 railway line, welcoming the Chinese president on a state visit.
The government has also been keen to protect its relationship with Saudi Arabia, which it considers to be a key ally in the Middle East especially in terms of sharing intelligence on terrorism.
The UK's change of priorities coincides with executions hitting a 25-year high worldwide in 2015, according to research by Amnesty International. China and Saudi Arabia, along with Iran and Pakistan, were identified as the most prolific users of capital punishment.
As the use of the death penalty is considered to be a state secret in China, there are no precise figures on how many people are executed. However, Amnesty said the country put more than 1,600 people to death last year.
Saudi Arabia executed at least 158 people in 2015, according to Amnesty – a 75% jump from the previous year and the highest number recorded for the kingdom since 1995.
During the coalition government years between 2011 and 2015 the Foreign Office backed 42 different campaigns fighting for the abolition of the death penalty around the world. This included projects specifically targeted at Iran, China, and Saudi Arabia.
Foreign Office documents from this era describe the effort to combat the death penalty as a major diplomatic focus, especially in China where the British government funded eight different campaigns to abolish the death penalty during that four-year period.
However, the Human Rights and Democracy Programme's commitments for 2015-16 show the Foreign Office currently has no specific funding for projects to abolish the death penalty in China, Iran, or Saudi Arabia.
Instead, it is funding general global campaigns against the death penalty, plus a handful of specific projects in Botswana, Honduras, Guatemala, Japan, and the US.
Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesperson Tom Brake accused the government and the foreign secretary of changing focus to encourage trade with countries such as China and Saudi Arabia.
“Abolition of the death penalty is one of the cornerstones of liberal values, and as arguably the most flagrant violation of human rights, should be at the core of our government’s international human rights campaign," he told BuzzFeed News.
“It is clear that in his shameful mission to downgrade human rights in British foreign policy, Philip Hammond is abandoning the fight against the death penalty.”
A Foreign Office spokesperson said: "Our work to abolish the death penalty around the world has a prominent place in the strategy for the Magna Carta Fund for Human Rights and Democracy as it did under its earlier name (Human Rights and Democracy Programme). The FCO is entirely committed to promoting abolition of the death penalty around the world, including in China – where it continues to be a major focus for our project work and advocacy."
Jim Waterson is a politics editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Jim Waterson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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