The UK foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has announced a decision to grant diplomatic protection to Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Nazanin is a British-Iranian mother who has been unlawfully imprisoned in Iran since April 2016.
While it is disappointing to have reached this stage, the UK’s decision to grant diplomatic protection to Nazanin will give her much-needed hope. It is something that Nazanin’s family and her legal team, including REDRESS, have been requesting since November 2017. So it is a positive development that the UK government has decided to act.
Diplomatic protection should not be confused with diplomatic immunity. Diplomatic protection is a formal state-to-state process under international law in which a state seeks protection and reparation for breaches of international law committed by another state against one of its nationals. It asserts that the injury to the individual is an injury to the state itself.
The UK’s exercise of diplomatic protection sends a message to Iran that the UK considers Nazanin a British national, and will assert her legal rights under international law. Up until this point Nazanin’s case has been treated as consular matter – essentially a dispute between Nazanin and the Government of Iran. Diplomatic protection has now elevated it to a formal inter-state dispute between Britain and Iran.
Given the seriousness of Nazanin’s situation, the UK government’s decision to grant her diplomatic protection is a reasonable step up in its strategy on her case. It should not be forgotten that this is a mother who has been unlawfully imprisoned for almost three years. She sees her daughter infrequently and only in prison, and has not seen her husband since her arrest. She has spent a total of eight and half months in solitary confinement, and continues to be denied access to crucial medical treatment.
The most immediate objective is for the UK government to gain a private consular visit with Nazanin in prison, and ensure she receives access to independent medical treatment. Nazanin’s health has declined severely since she was first arrested. Her psychological state is currently perilous, and she is suffering from significant neurological and other physical health issues. These need to be addressed immediately, and diplomatic protection could help do that.
Other initial steps that the UK could take include lodging an official diplomatic protest with Iran, and requesting that formal negotiations are held to resolve the dispute.
Diplomatic protection is rare, but it is not unprecedented. The UK used diplomatic protection against Iran in a 1951 dispute on behalf of a British oil company. The United States also used it against Iran in response to the 1979 Tehran hostage crisis.
Other countries have historically been more willing than the UK to take action to protect their nationals abroad. Just last year the United States imposed economic sanctions on Turkey in response to the detention of a US citizen, Andrew Brunson. Turkey released Brunson two months later.
It is difficult to know how Iran will react to the use of diplomatic protection. The UK Foreign Secretary has recognised that there may be a backlash from Iran in the immediate term. But the rationale is that over the long run diplomatic protection will provide a formal legal process that can be used to resolve the dispute over Nazanin’s case. It will hopefully be the first step towards finally ensuring that Nazanin is freed, and that she and her daughter are reunited with their husband and father in the UK.
Charlie Loudon is an International Legal Adviser at REDRESS, a human rights organisation acting as legal representatives for Nazanin and Richard Ratcliffe