Dominic Raab has told officials in a leaked video call that Britain will seek trade deals with countries around the world that violate international standards on human rights.
The foreign secretary told staff in his department that only trading with countries that meet European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) standards would mean the UK missing out on trade with future “growth markets”.
In a question and answer session with Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) staff, a recording of which has been heard by HuffPost UK, Raab said: “I squarely believe we ought to be trading liberally around the world.
“If we restrict it to countries with ECHR-level standards of human rights, we’re not going to do many trade deals with the growth markets of the future.”
HuffPost UK understands the foreign secretary also used the meeting to name countries where the UK had raised human rights issues with key trade partners.
It is understood that Raab also said: “We don’t junk whole relationships because we’ve got issues – we have a conversation because we want to change the behaviour.
“And I think we’re in a much better position to do that if we’re willing to engage. [...]
“I can think of behaviour that would cross the line and render a country beyond the pale.
“But fundamentally I’m a big believer in engaging to try and exert positive influence even if it’s only a moderating influence, and I hope that calibrated approach gives you a sense that it’s not just words – we back it up with action.”
Raab’s words came after the government published a major review of foreign policy, which includes plans for post-Brexit Britain to tilt towards the Indo-Pacific region as the world’s “geopolitical and economic centre of gravity” moves east.
The increased focus on the region is an acknowledgement of Chinese influence, as well as the importance of countries including India and Japan.
The shift will be underlined by the deployment of the HMS Queen Elizabeth carrier strike group to the region on its maiden operational mission later this year and a visit by Boris Johnson to India in April.
The prime minister said Brexit marked a “new chapter in our history” and the UK was now “open to the world, free to tread our own path” as the integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy was published.
Responding to Raab’s comments, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy said it was the second time in as many weeks that “that the foreign secretary has exposed for talking up trade deals with countries that abuse human rights”.
The Times reported last week that Raab had said the UK would be open to signing a future trade deal “with our Chinese friends” at an event attended by senior Beijing diplomats.
Nandy said: “This is the second time in as many weeks that the foreign secretary has exposed for talking up trade deals with countries that abuse human rights.
“It is the latest example of a government entirely devoid of a moral compass and riddled with inconsistency, happy to say one thing in public and another behind closed doors.
“Today the prime minister stood up in parliament and lauded the UK’s commitment to defending human rights around the world.
“This afternoon, the foreign secretary is sending a very clear message to countries engaged in appalling human rights abuses that this government welcomes them with open arms.”
Labour’s shadow trade secretary Emily Thornberry added: “Just weeks ago, Dominic Raab told Andrew Marr that Britain should not be doing trade deals with human rights abusers overseas.
“Now in private he says the government is prepared to sign trade deals with any country, even those violating the laws drawn up by British officials after the horrors of the Second World War.
“No wonder the government are talking up the prospects of deeper trade links with China in their integrated review and continuing to block the genocide amendment to the trade bill.”
Amnesty International UK said Raab’s “shocking” comments would “send a chill down the spine of embattled human rights activists right across the globe”, and that they fit “a depressing pattern on human rights from this government”.
Its director Kate Allen said: “So-called ‘growth markets’ – countries like India, Indonesia or Brazil – are often precisely places where human rights protections are fragile and under threat.
“And in some countries such as Myanmar, the army has control of economic activity which directly funds its military operations, including those implicated in human rights abuses.
“Trade that arises from or contributes to human rights violations can never be truly sustainable.
“Companies will rightly worry about their obligations to avoid involvement in human rights abuse, investors will take fright and the whole edifice will come tumbling down.”
An FCDO spokesperson claimed the audio had been “deliberately and selectively clipped to distort the foreign secretary’s comments”.
They added: “As he made crystal clear in his full answer, the UK always stands up for and speaks out on human rights.
“In his full answer, in an internal meeting, he highlighted examples where the UK has applied Magnitsky sanctions [sanctions to specific individuals and organisations rather than entire countries] and raised issues at the UN regardless of trade interests, and that this was a responsible, targeted and carefully calibrated approach to bilateral relations.”
In a Commons statement on the integrated review, Johnson insisted the UK had led international condemnation of China’s alleged “mass detention” of Uighur people in Xinjiang and its actions in Hong Kong.
“There is no question China will pose a great challenge for an open society such as ours,” Johnson said.
“But we will also work with China where that is consistent with our values and interests, including building a stronger and positive economic relationship and in addressing climate change.”
The plans for closer engagement with China were criticised by senior Tory MPs, who warned Johnson to avoid the “grasping naivety” of the David Cameron years.
Julian Lewis, chair of the intelligence and security committee of parliament, also suggested the impact of the economic closeness with China sought by Cameron and his chancellor George Osborne was still evident.
Lewis said: “It’s suggested on pages 62-3 [of the review] that our adversary Communist China [...] is an increasingly important partner in tackling global challenges like pandemic preparedness, if you please, and that we want deeper trade links and more Chinese investment in the UK.
“Doesn’t that unfortunately demonstrate that the grasping naivety of the Cameron-Osborne years still lingers on in some departments of state?”
During the statement, Johnson also faced opposition MPs shouting “genocide” when he described China’s treatment of the Uighur people in Xinjiang as “mass detention”.
Responding to Lewis, the PM said: “Those who call for a new Cold War on China or for us to sequester our economy entirely from China, which seems to be the new policy of the opposition, weaving as they generally do from one position to the next, are, I think, mistaken.
“We have a balance to strike, we need to have a clear-eyed relationship with China.
“Of course we’re protecting our critical national infrastructure and we’ll continue to do that.
“We will take tough measures, as I have said, to call out China for what they’re doing in Xinjiang.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated to include a statement from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, and a fuller excerpt of the foreign secretary’s words to officials.