Human Rights: Consular Services — [Dame Caroline Dinenage in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall am 2:30 pm ar 16 Ebrill 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Christine Jardine Christine Jardine Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Women and Equalities), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 2:30, 16 Ebrill 2024

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered consular services for cases involving human rights.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Caroline. As many other Members probably do, I have a wee blue laminated badge that says “Free Nazanin”. It was given to me by Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband Richard the first time I met him, during his hunger strike outside the Iranian embassy in London. I keep it in the corner of a mirror in my flat. Originally, it was a daily reminder of Nazanin and the emotional torture that she and her family were being put through. Now, I keep it as a reminder of those who are still enduring imprisonment abroad and having to fight for the right to fair representation and fair trial, which in this country we take for granted.

Jagtar Singh Johal has been arrested and held without trial in India for seven years—seven years in which the Indian Government have presented no evidence to link him to any crime. There have been claims of his having to sign a false confession under torture. Ryan Cornelius was arrested in 2008 and convicted of fraud in the United Arab Emirates. After completing his sentence, he now faces a 20-year extension, decided behind closed doors without legal representation. British-Russian journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza, for his criticism of the regime of Vladimir Putin, was given the longest prison sentence for political activity in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union: 25 years, in one of the country’s harshest prisons.

How can that happen, we ask ourselves? How can it be that British nationals can find themselves without legal representation or recourse to support? It was only in a recent conversation with Richard Ratcliffe that I realised the lengths to which he had to go to ensure that Nazanin got representation. As it stands, there is no legal guarantee that any British citizen will have the right to assistance from the consulate in the country where they are held. There is no process, threshold or mechanism. In other countries, there is: in the United States there is a statutory requirement for the State Department and the President to advocate on behalf of US nationals who are wrongfully detained. They must also endeavour to provide support and resources for the detainee’s family, whose advocacy can be crucial in securing release, as we know from the case of Richard and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

Yes, support can be provided, and sometimes it is, but the problem is that that is at the discretion of the consulate. Although the UK ratified the Vienna convention through the Consular Relations Act 1968, so much of it relies on diplomacy, good faith and international relationships—discretion. Surely that is not enough. It is not enough that if any of our constituents find themselves detained abroad, they will have no guarantee that their Government will protect them and their wellbeing, and that the right to protest their innocence or transfer home to this country will be dependent on diplomatic niceties and international relationships.

Too often, the fair treatment or the eventual release of British citizens detained abroad depends on publicity, on campaigns by the family and on the support and hard work of their MP. Many of us have direct experience of offering such support to our constituents. In my previous career as a journalist, I covered the case of a schoolteacher from the north-east of Scotland whose release from jail in Thailand was secured by the then MP for Gordon, my noble Friend Lord Bruce of Bennachie —it is a long-standing issue. I have already mentioned the efforts on behalf of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, many of which were made by Tulip Siddiq. Martin Docherty-Hughes has worked on behalf of Jagtar Singh Johal; Hannah Bardell does a power of work as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on deaths abroad, consular services and assistance. But the people they have represented are just a tiny fraction of those affected, and the problem is growing.

Just last year, a Foreign Affairs Committee report recognised the scale of the problem. It is a problem that the Government are familiar with, not just through the high-profile cases that I mentioned earlier, but through the 5,000 new cases of British citizens arrested or detained abroad that the Foreign Office estimated in 2022 that it can deal with annually.