Foreign secretary Philip Hammond
The recalibration of the promotion of civil liberties overseas has triggered a row between campaigners and the foreign secretary, Philip Hammond. Photograph: Laura Lean/PA

The UK Foreign Office has revised its global human rights priorities, dropping any explicit reference to its campaign to abolish the death penalty. The recalibration of the promotion of civil liberties overseas has triggered a row between campaigners and the foreign secretary, Philip Hammond.

According to the department – which, like most of Whitehall, is under pressure to make savings – the change in terminology does not signal a shift in policy on capital punishment. The Foreign Office, however, has confirmed that it is in the process of relabelling its much vaunted “six global thematic priorities”, which consisted of women’s rights, torture prevention, abolition of the death penalty, freedom of expression on the internet, business and human rights, and freedom of religion or belief.

In their place will be three less specific categories relating to human rights, democratic values and the rule of law. There is no mention of opposing the death penalty in the title of the new overarching themes.

The department also confirmed it was dropping the term “human rights countries of concern” and replacing it with the less critical-sounding “human rights priority countries”.

The alterations, coinciding with the arrival of the Conservative majority government, have alarmed the charity Reprieve, which campaigns against the death penalty and assists people on death row around the world. In a letter to Hammond, released to the Guardian, the organisation claims the changes amount to “the UK’s retreat from the fight for global abolition of the death penalty”.

The charity also alleges that Foreign Office funding for death penalty projects through its Human Rights and Democracy Department (HRDD) will no longer be ringfenced and spending on human rights cut back.

This financial year, 2015-16, the Foreign Office is spending £600,000 on anti-death penalty projects. The work involves funding for civil society projects, including setting up an abolitionist network in the Commonwealth Caribbean.

Reprieve, which says it has been briefed on the new strategy, has asked Hammond to reconsider his “decision to abandon the government’s pledge to fight for the global abolition of capital punishment”. It deplores the decision to no longer “class states such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran as ‘countries of concern’ … despite dramatic spikes in their use of capital punishment and use of torture”.

Saudi Arabia has executed 104 prisoners so far this year, Reprieve points out, a sharp increase on the 87 recorded for the whole of 2014; Iran has executed nearly 700 prisoners, a number likely to exceed last year’s total; and Pakistan has ended a longstanding death penalty moratorium, hanging at least 192 people in less than eight months.

The UK’s commitment to campaigning against the death penalty was codified under the last government, which published a death penalty strategy in 2010. Reprieve is calling on Hammond to renew his department’s commitment to fighting for the abolition of the death penalty overseas, publish a strategy setting out actions for advancing abolition of capital punishment, and retain the “country of concern” categorisation.

Reprieve does not receive money from the FCO’s HRDD fund but is supported by the department’s consular services for its work on death penalty cases involving Britons overseas.

The overall rationale for the FCO changes is said to be to allow a more flexible approach in policy. The department now lists Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran as “human rights priority countries”.

Asked about spending on death penalty projects, the Foreign Office said the budget and composition for its programmes was under consideration as part of the Treasury’s Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR), due to be resolved this autumn.

An FCO spokeswoman said: “Our long-standing policy hasn’t changed. We remain committed to advancing global abolition of the death penalty and it is wrong to suggest otherwise. The government opposes the death penalty in all circumstances as a matter of principle and we would like to see the long-term trend towards abolition continue throughout this parliament.”