Every year, over 100 British people tell the Foreign Office that they have been tortured or ill-treated while detained overseas. Many more suffer from other serious human rights abuses, including unlawful arrest and detention and unfair trials. Some will have been specifically targeted because they are British.
Many of us have been shocked by the ongoing unlawful detention of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian mother who was arrested in Iran in April 2016. Over 1.5million signed the petition calling for her release, as another Christmas went by without her daughter, now three-and-a-half, and her husband Richard, who lives in the UK. UN experts have consistently called for her release. It took a considerable amount of public pressure for the UK government to do the same on humanitarian grounds. Nazanin is still waiting to come home.
At REDRESS, we have found over the past 25 years that anyone can be arrested and detained, tortured or ill-treated, regardless of their background, their job title or their political opinion. In the UK, as we start sending off applications for our shiny new blue passports we might want to pay close attention to the inside cover which asks that the bearer is afforded “such assistance and protection as may be necessary.”
Granted, there is only so much a polite request can do, and the reality is that it is the countries that torture that must be put to task for their appalling human rights records. However, under international law, the UK is entitled to intervene on behalf of its nationals and dual nationals abroad to ensure that their basic needs are met and their fundamental rights are respected. This can be done through the provision of consular assistance and diplomatic protection.
On the ground, consular assistance can be a humanitarian safeguard, sometimes the only link between the detainee and the outside world. By giving consular support to the detainee the UK government can help prevent torture or ill-treatment of its nationals before it happens. When a person has already been abused, the UK can enforce their rights through diplomatic protection, a process in international law that elevates a case to an inter-State dispute to obtain reparation for the abuse, and not to be confused with diplomatic immunity.
“Every year, over 100 British people tell the Foreign Office that they have been tortured or ill-treated while detained overseas”
However, in the UK, both consular assistance and diplomatic protection are not enshrined in UK law but are regulated instead as a matter of policy and therefore are actions that are taken at the discretion of the UK government. Some victims and their families have been concerned about this approach.
A report published by REDRESS today, Beyond Discretion: The Protection of British Nationals Abroad from Torture and Ill-Treatment, describes the experiences of several British nationals and dual nationals detained abroad and the kind of support they have received from the UK government.
Our report concludes that notwithstanding the significant efforts of the UK government in individual cases, the overall practice in this area is inconsistent and lacks transparency and needs to be strengthened in order to protect all British nationals abroad.
In addition, our report finds that the UK’s insistence in disassociating consular issues from human rights has resulted in weak support for survivors who are seeking remedies for their abuse. The UK government does not raise consular cases at the UN Human Rights Council. It does not talk about consular cases within its annual human rights reports, even for countries that are routinely abusing British nationals or are on the UK’s list of human rights priority countries.
The often harrowing experiences of victims and their families merits a review of the current approach.
Instead of considering this merely as a matter of policy, REDRESS argues that current UK law should be amended so a right to consular assistance is enshrined in UK law and that there is an obligation for the UK government to exercise diplomatic protection in cases where all UK nationals have suffered or face a risk of serious human rights abuses in detention abroad, when requested.
In November 2017, then-Foreign Office Minister Rory Stewart vowed that “extreme action” would be taken if a British national had been tortured. The introduction of a right and an obligation in such cases would ensure that any action is not extreme, but guaranteed for those who need the protection of their country the most.
Josie Fathers is an Advocacy Officer at REDRESS working to increase support and assistance to British nationals detained abroad who are at risk of torture and ill-treatment. REDRESS is a human rights organisation that works with torture survivors to obtain justice and make torturers accountable. Their new report Beyond Discretion is out today