Human rights activists and charities have slammed Sir Simon McDonald, Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office, who said that human rights no longer had the "profile" within his department as it had done "in the past".
Allan Hogarth from Amnesty International UK said the comments were "as astonishing as they are alarming", while the Conservative chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Crispin Blunt, said it was "one of the consequences of inadequate resourcing to run a sensible foreign policy".
worrying development considering govt have said human rights not a foreign policy priority, as trade trumps it! so much for local democracy— Allan Hogarth (@hogihogarth) October 3, 2015
When asked by Mr Blunt's committee whether human rights were now one of the foreign office's "lower-priority activities", Sir Simon said:
"I say that although it is one of the things we follow, it is not one of our top priorities."
"In a more constrained environment, the need to concentrate on Europe, Eastern Europe and Russia, and the Middle East has supplanted it to an extent."
Sir Simon also noted that Britain's "prosperity agenda" was "further up the list of priorities" than human rights concerns.
Britain Hypocritical for Preaching Over Human Rights
The rather open response attracted some quick criticism from Mr Blunt, who called out British hypocrisy when preaching the values of human rights on the international stage.
"It does seem that this has been downgraded and there will be colleagues who will be immensely concerned about this," he said.
"I think that the use of our soft power around agendas such as human rights is particularly important."
"If we are beginning to see human rights work formally come second fiddle to a commercial strategy, it fits pretty oddly when we are still speaking the language of a great power such as getting stuck into conflicts such as Syria."
Amnesty International's head of policy and government affairs, Allan Hogarth, told the Independent that there were serious concerns over the direction of the current government, particularly given the recent comments.
"When much of the Middle East is in flames and a refugee crisis is engulfing Europe, Sir Simon's comments are as astonishing as they are alarming."
"There should never be a trade-off between economic interests and the lives and liberties of people. We'll be seeking to follow this up at the highest level within the Foreign Office," he added.
There has been ongoing criticism of Britain's commitment to international standards, with the country slammed for its involvement in selling arms to countries like Saudi Arabia, Israel and Bahrain, despite these nations being accused of committing grave breaches of human rights.
The issue of selling arms to countries with questionable human rights records was also brought up during the Defense and Security Equipment International (DSEI) exhibition, held in London last month.
It was revealed that the UK government invited Saudi Arabian officials and representatives from authoritarian regimes to the event.