REDRESS Welcomes Labour’s Commitment to Change Current Approach to Consular Assistance and Hostage-Taking

REDRESS welcomes the Labour Party’s commitment to introduce a legal right to consular assistance to British nationals detained abroad, and establish a new special envoy to oversee cases of arbitrary detention and hostage-taking, as announced today by the Labour’s shadow foreign secretary David Lammy.  

The announcement comes less than one month after the release of British-American hostage Morad Tabaz, following more than four years of arbitrary detention in Iran, and the UK government’s refusal to take on board any key recommendations made by families of those affected to the Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry into the way the UK government handles such cases. Both policy announcements echo recommendations made by REDRESS to the inquiry. 

The provision of consular protection can provide a vital safeguard against torture, but in the UK, the decision as to whether to provide consular protection is entirely at the discretion of the UK government; it is a question of policy, not law.  

REDRESS has long argued that a right to consular protection for all British nationals should be enshrined in UK law as the UK government’s overall practice in this area can be unpredictable, lack transparency, and be inconsistent with the government’s own guidance. 

British nationals detained abroad, and their families, have complained of a lack of communication with consular officials as well as belated and infrequent consular visits which often do not happen in private. Where consular staff have been prevented from visiting British nationals in prison, for instance, because of the individual’s dual nationality, families claim that consular staff have not sufficiently insisted on gaining access, even in cases where torture has been alleged. 

Jagtar Singh Johal, a client of REDRESS, was tortured immediately after his detention by Indian police by having electric shocks administer to his ears, nipples and genitals, having his limbs forced into painful positions, and receiving death threats. Almost six years after he was abducted off the street while visiting India in 2017, he remains in pre-trial detention without conviction, with no access to private consular assistance and limited access to his lawyers. He faces a possible death sentence, with the primary evidence against him being a supposed “confession” extracted under torture.

For his brother, Gurpreet Singh Johal, “it is vital that the UK government introduces a legal right to consular assistance for British nationals detained abroad.”

“What happened to my brother could have happened to any British national travelling overseas. After he was tortured, we expected the UK government to do everything in its power to protect him, but this didn’t happen, even when the UN found that his detention was arbitrary and that he had been targeted for his work as a human rights defender. The UK government’s absolute discretion on the kind of assistance it can provide leaves little room for detainees and their families to demand more of the government when not enough is being done,” said Gurpreet Singh Johal. 

Richard Ratcliffe, the husband of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, another client of REDRESS, maintains that while she was in prison and held hostage by Iran, the UK government missed opportunities to protect Nazanin, a dual British-Iranian citizen. He complained that consular officials never attended her trials or visited Nazanin in prison, and took years to acknowledge any violation of her rights. 

Reacting to the announcement, Richard Ratcliffe, said: 

“I am really pleased that Labour has reiterated its commitment when in government to put a right to consular protection into UK law. I am also pleased that it has taken up the suggestion of the Foreign Affairs Committee for a Special Hostage Envoy. It will make 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. The government has been resistant to learning the lessons from Nazanin’s case, or to acknowledging any mistakes were made, which is just mind boggling. So I am really glad that other parties have.”

Matthew Hedges, a British survivor of torture in the United Arab Emirates, commented: 

“The Foreign Office’s failure to handle consular cases has been exposed through high profile cases like my own. Their institutional failings have been identified through the parliamentary ombudsman’s investigation into my case, and further exposed by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. The lack of response and serious engagement by the Foreign Office is personally insulting and a warning to all British nationals that their government is not willing to protect them. Were consular assistance to be enshrined in law, as is the case in many other states, British citizens would be safe in the knowledge that they will not be left isolated to the whims of hostile states, like I was in the United Arab Emirates.”

REDRESS has long argued that UK law must be amended to establish a right to consular assistance when British nationals (including dual nationals) experience or are at risk of serious human rights violations, in order to: 

  1. Provide reassurance to UK nationals facing such risks abroad that their government will work consistently to shield them from human rights abuses and make complaints to the government of the State where the violations have or may have taken place.
  2. Provide transparency so that the person and their family know what to expect in terms of support and the steps that can be taken if that support is lacking.
  3. Send a powerful message that UK citizens must be treated in accordance with international human rights standards.

Through our work representing people who have been tortured overseas, we know that it can be a real problem when the UK government has such a wide discretion as to how they provide consular protection, especially when this may be the only link between the detainee and the outside world and their only protection against abuse from their captors,” said Rupert Skilbeck, Director of REDRESS. “A legal obligation to provide consular protection would dramatically improve the experiences of British nationals detained abroad.” 

For more information, please contact: Eva Sanchis, Head of Communications at REDRESS, on [email protected] or +44 (0)20 7793 1777.