Jagtar Singh Johal

REDRESS Sets out Principles for a Legal Right to Consular Assistance


24 January – Despite the vital role of consular assistance in protecting British nationals detained overseas from serious human rights violations, currently consular assistance is provided at the discretion of the UK Government.  

A new briefing published by REDRESS outlines the case for introducing a legal right to consular assistance for British nationals detained abroad and sets out a series of principles to help shape this legal right. 

The principles have been developed in consultation with survivors of torture, their families, and legal experts and have been endorsed by the following organisations: British Rights Abroad Group, The Free Nazanin Campaign, Hostage International, and Prisoners Abroad. 

Because the greatest risk of suffering torture and other serious human rights violations is within the first 48 hours of detention, consular assistance can provide a vital safeguard against such abuses. The UK Government’s own figures show that around 100 British nationals are tortured or ill-treated abroad each year. 

Consular assistance is particularly important to prevent and respond to cases of serious human rights abuses, such as torture, arbitrary detention, or state hostage taking, and plays a vital role in mitigating the psychological impacts of such abuses when they do occur. Yet the British government currently accepts no legal responsibility to support its nationals even when they face serious human rights violations, as REDRESS previously set out in the report Beyond Discretion: The Protection of British Nationals Abroad. 

Introducing a legal right to consular assistance would not only benefit British nationals who find themselves in dire circumstances while traveling abroad, it would benefit the British State by offering a structured approach for the protection of its nationals, and would ensure that British values are respected even beyond our borders. 

The principles outlined in this briefing aim to provide a framework to shape the transformation of consular assistance from a discretionary practice to a legal obligation, through which the UK Government can guarantee more robust safeguards for its nationals and solidify its commitment to secure the rights and wellbeing of some of its most vulnerable citizens. 

Sarah Whittaker, Trauma Clinic Manager at Trauma Treatment International, said: 

“Consular assistance acts as a powerful remedy against the harmful effects of psychological ill-treatment or torture, which are common features of any harsh detention setting. Psychological torture often aims deliberately to distort a person’s sense of self and reality via techniques that isolate and create a feeling of hopelessness. Consular assistance counters this by reassuring the person that others know where they are and that others (including the British State) care about them and are acting in their best interests. It provides a sense of reality and a vital link to their family and the outside world.”

Chris Esdaile, Senior Legal Advisor at REDRESS, said: 

“The broad discretion the UK government has in offering consular assistance to individuals who have faced torture abroad is hugely concerning. Consular assistance often serves as the sole connection between people in detention and the external world, providing their only safeguard against torture or ill-treatment. It is right – and long overdue – that these protections are given a legal footing.”

Richard Ratcliffe, husband of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe who was imprisoned and held hostage in Iran, said: 

“A legal right to consular assistance would have made such a difference in cases like Nazanin’s. Families should not have to go on hunger strike in front of the government’s door to get them to do something in cases of torture and unfair imprisonment. They should not be allowed to drift for years.”

Lara Symons, CEO of Hostage International, said: 

“As a charity providing essential practical and emotional support for people affected by arbitrary detention and hostage-taking, we welcomed the opportunity to work alongside other charities to feed into this report. While we are not involved in the resolution of incidents, nor campaign on individual detention or hostage situations, we hope that this report will help open-up the conversation to ensure better protection and support for British nationals at risk and better engagement with their families.”

Christopher Stacey, Chief Executive of Prisoners Abroad, said: 

“For British citizens detained overseas, consular assistance is absolutely vital to safeguarding their welfare and human rights; it is especially so for people imprisoned in countries where they may not understand the criminal justice system, the language or the culture. Prisoners Abroad has over 45 years’ experience of supporting British people in prisons overseas and we support the principle put forward by REDRESS that consular assistance should be provided as a legal obligation.” 

For more information or for an interview, please contact Eva Sanchis, Head of Communications, on [email protected], +44 (0)20 7793 1777 (office) or +44 (0) 7857 110076 (mobile).

Photo: Free Jaggi Campaign.