The Foreign Office in Westminster is demanding to vet Scottish Government dealings with other countries on human rights, according to correspondence seen by the Sunday Herald.
The UK foreign minister, James Duddridge, has asked the Scottish international development minister, Humza Yousaf, to clear all his letters to foreign governments with the UK government before raising concerns about human rights infringements and other matters.
The move has infuriated Yousaf. “It beggars belief that the Tories – who are in the midst of scrapping the Human Rights Act – want to vet the Scottish Government’s letters raising human rights concerns abroad,” he said.
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“I am proud of the SNP raising concerns about human rights without fear or favour – and certainly will take no lessons from the Tories on this,” he added.
“Whilst we are happy to share correspondence with Westminster, as we have done to date as a matter of courtesy, we certainly will not be asking or seeking permission before raising legitimate concerns about human rights.”
Yousaf wrote to Duddridge and the Malawian High Commission, Kena Mphonda, on December 16 2015 raising concerns about the arrest of two Malawian nationals, Cuthbert Kulemela and Kelvin Gonani, for alleged homosexual offences.
Duddridge replied on January 7 2016, saying that following representations from the UK government, charges against the two men had been dropped. “You mention that you have written to the Malawian High Commissioner on this matter,” he wrote.
“While it may be useful that the Malawi High Commission is aware of your concern about this issue, I would be grateful if correspondence with governments on human rights and other reserved matters be cleared through this department.”
Duddridge stressed that homosexual rights were “sensitive issues” in Malawi, and there was a risk of a backlash against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. “Our public and private approach needs to be calibrated carefully in order to help, not hinder, the overall goal of improving the legal and societal environment for LGBT people in Malawi,” he said.
Duddridge’s letter was viewed with concern by professor Alan Miller, who chairs the Scottish Human Rights Commission and the European Network of National Human Rights Institutions. “It is welcome that the Scottish and UK governments appear to have effectively cooperated with regard to the Malawi cases,” he said.
“However it is regrettable that the letter goes further than simply recognising this. In so doing it does however reflect the underlying tension of two different directions of travel being taken by the UK and Scotland.”
Miller pointed out that while Scotland was seeking to better meet international human rights obligations, the UK government was retreating from them. “In the real world human rights are neither reserved nor devolved but are universal,” he argued.
“These times require all governments to put aside politics and better cooperate in upholding their shared human rights responsibilities at home and abroad.”
Scotland has long had a special link with Malawi, dating back to the famed 19th century missionary and explorer Dr David Livingstone. The Scottish Government has invested more than £37 million over the last decade in more than 100 projects aimed at improving the lives of Malawians.
Like other African countries, Malawi has historically regarded homosexuality as taboo, and has laws forbidding gay sex. But its leaders have recently introduced a moratorium on gay arrests and prosecutions, and promised to review the law.
The Foreign and Commonweath Office in London defended Duddridge’s letter. “By law, foreign affairs, including consular and human rights matters, are the responsibility of the UK Government, rather than a devolved area,” said a spokesman.
“The Foreign and Commonwealth Office represents the whole of the UK to ensure a consistent approach in our ongoing international relationships.”