It’s time to protect British citizens at risk abroad

Every year, over 5,000 British and dual nationals are arrested or detained abroad. Many are at risk of or actually suffer torture and other prohibited ill-treatment while in detention. At REDRESS, we provide ongoing support to a number of these individuals and their families. For them, receiving consular assistance from the UK government is crucial to prevent such abuse or put an end to it where it has already occurred.

But what does the UK government actually do to protect its nationals at risk abroad?

Current UK policy and practice

The right of a state to intervene in matters concerning its nationals is a customary right in international law codified in the 1963 Vienna Convention, which has 179 state parties including the UK. Under its internal guidelines for consular officials, the UK government may intervene when there are legitimate concerns for the health, welfare and human rights of a national, or dual national, abroad, or concerns that they are being held unlawfully or being discriminated against.

However, there can often be a gap between what you would expect the UK government will do to protect its nationals at risk abroad, and what it actually does. This has been the criticism of both the families of Andy Tsege and Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliffe two prominent cases of UK nationals arbitrarily detained in Ethiopia and Iran respectively.

The UN has judged them both to be arbitrarily detained and at risk of abuse, and has called for them to be released immediately. However, in both cases the UK government has neither publicly called for their release nor otherwise endorsed the UN’s decisions.

In an open letter to Andy’s supporters last month, the UK government maintained that it would not directly call for his release and that the current strategy is to pursue legal representation. For his partner Yemi, this has no hope of ending Andy’s ordeal, as the Ethiopian government has confirmed on several occasions that there is no legal process available to him.

Yemi can see little progress in the three years since he was abducted by Ethiopian authorities. Andy remains on death row in Ethiopia’s notorious Kality prison, unable to call his children or write a letter. While the British Ambassador is occasionally permitted to see him, these visits are conducted in the presence of Ethiopian security officials, preventing Andy from speaking freely.

For Nazanin’s family, it has now been over a year since she was taken by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard while visiting her parents in Iran with her baby daughter Gabriella. She is one of several dual nationals arrested and being held on secret charges and accused in the media of spying on behalf of foreign governments. Last month, her final appeal against her five-year sentence was rejected by Iran’s Supreme Court, marking the end of the legal process. She has still not been given the charge sheet against her.

Her husband, Richard, has requested the UK government to stand up for her by publicly proclaiming her innocence, rejecting the spy allegations against her and insisting that the British ambassador in Tehran be allowed to visit her in prison.

These are not unrealistic expectations. For example, Germany has been very vocal in its demands for regular consular access to journalist Deniz Yücel, as well as other German-Turkish dual nationals detained by Turkey, and has stated that the entire German government is working towards his release.

The UK government currently operates on a policy of discretion on whether it will provide assistance and the strength of the action it takes. This means that even if there are grounds to intervene, there is no guarantee that it will do so. While the Government argues that this provides for greater flexibility to provide tailored assistance, it is a process that lacks transparency and cannot be held accountable, exacerbated by the fact that the UK’s consular assistance guidelines have yet to be made public.

The Government has therefore faced criticism that foreign policy considerations, such as the fight against terrorism, the provision of aid and opportunities for trade, may impact on the degree of assistance provided in each case. In the post-Brexit era of trade negotiations, how can we ensure greater protections for those in need of it?

The way forward

One simple way to strengthen protections for British nationals at risk abroad is for the UK to declare a “default positon.” The government should make it known that any risk of torture and mistreatment of British nationals will not be tolerated, and will always have consequences. In addition, where human rights monitoring mechanisms, such as the UN, have found the detention to be arbitrary and called for the individual’s release, the government should work pro-actively towards the implementation of these decisions.

REDRESS believes it should be clear that the UK will always vigorously follow up allegations until they are fully resolved. A strategy of increasingly intensified representations should be implemented in each case, which should be clearly communicated to the families.

Consular assistance should be brought into the heart of UK human rights foreign policy, including being considered as part of existing risk assessment practices when negotiating new trade deals or aid packages.

The election brings with it an opportunity to ensure greater protection for all UK nationals arbitrarily detained, and at risk of torture and mistreatment abroad as part of the post-Brexit negotiations. At the end of the day, if consular and diplomatic action enhances the possibility to prevent and end the abuse of someone at risk, then the government should make sure to have robust and principled policies and laws in place to ensure to get its nationals home, safe and sound.

Josie 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.

For more information on the work of REDRESS or for consular assistance contact or follow REDRESS on Twitter @REDRESSTrust