The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) with its 14,000 staff is tasked with promoting British interests abroad but the government department’s goals are often conflicting in nature, leaving diplomats in confusion over priorities, placing British citizens and interests across the board at risk.
Divided diplomatic goals diminishes British influence abroad.
In a BBC programme, Dr Edward Wastnidge explains “The Foreign Office plays a key role in projecting the UK’s influence overseas through its emphasis on the so-called ‘rules-based international order’. As part of this, the FCDO emphasises British values in the UK’s international affairs, such as respect for the rule of law and human rights, and the promotion of democracy and good governance.” He then continues to explain another key area “for the Foreign Office in terms of the UK’s interests overseas lies in its focus on promoting prosperity through promotion of economic growth and development of trade relationships with other countries.”
Are these two goals mutually exclusive? Not necessarily, but the latter certainly muddies the water, clouds the judgement and depletes the efficacy of senior diplomats, embassies and caseworkers.
FCDO diplomats promote mutual trade, investment and business interests, and simultaneously lobby for security and defence alliances. Economic and security interests in parallel may strengthen relations, especially in countries with similar ethos but difficulty arises when we introduce the obligation to “promote human rights” and support British citizens. It’s a delicate mix when on the one hand, we are asking for oil production favours and economic investment from Middle Eastern countries and on the other, we are ever so gently prompting the same governments to investigate or admit to serious human rights violations against our citizens. Some of our allies find such suggestions offensive, ungrateful and even hypocritical; A diplomat’s combined interests could easily be placed in jeopardy for raising such uncomfortable allegations. A Foreign Secretary or Ambassador will face the challenge to strike a balance and, with high turnover, each new official will need to learn to prioritise and sadly, they most certainly do. In the honest words of the former consular representative for the Middle East, “The FCDO prioritises economic interests above the human rights of British citizens”.
This truism can’t be camouflaged. It is reflected in everyday actions, and spoken in the words of every British national who has ever sought help from their government. It is reflected in the dismissiveness of senior diplomats and ministers all the way down to junior case officers who are flooded with formal complaints from outraged family members.
It is not only the angered British nationals that the FCDO should be concerned about, but the resulting diminished respect from foreign allies. If Britain struggles or side-lines efforts to diplomatically resolve cases of wrongful detention, forced confessions, human rights abuses, torture and extrajudicial killings, allies like Saudi, Qatar and the UAE will naturally view the UK as weak. This wasn’t always the case, a former diplomat tells me, “We used to go out of our way to help citizens where we saw injustice. We did everything possible and we did it fast. The FCDO doesn’t help citizens anymore, has declining influence and appears desperate to other countries”. In neglecting its obligation to citizens and to the promotion of human rights and deliberately avoiding any topic that might be deemed “offensive” to an overseas monarch, Britain has weakened itself. Before the FCDO can re-establish respect, they will need a change in policy.
When Foreign Minister, Dominic Raab, was asked by Baroness Whitaker to involve himself in resolving a human rights case, he replied “we have the ability to raise human rights issues privately and publicly and have significant influence”. The Baroness then sought to confirm whether he would do so but as is typical, she received no reply. There is a culture within the FCDO to dismiss, ignore and sideline British requests for assistance, even where serious human rights violations are involved. “It is as though they are working against you, almost like they are working for the other side”, a sorrowful but consistent complaint from British nationals who have experienced the department’s delinquency first hand. “Whatever the Foreign Office tells you to do, do the exact opposite” and “I’m sorry I ever followed their advice”, are all too common statements amongst victims of the FCDO’s failed policy.
The FCDO culture at the caseworker level is extremely frustrating. Numerous complaints have been made to the department but no action has been taken to improve, re-train or reprioritise. Both Albert Douglas and Billy Hood’s families have made complaints against the FCDO’s UK case officer, Rahat Ahmed, who they feel has continued to thwart efforts to bring their loved ones home. When Laleh Shahravesh returned from the UAE after being arrested over a Facebook post, she told Good Morning Britain “the FCDO did absolutely nothing” and if she had taken their advice, she would “still be there”.
Former Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt told reporters “we owe an explanation” to Nazanin Zathari-Ratcliffe over her lengthy detention in Iran. He went so far as to say the “UK’s starting to look weak over failure to protect citizens”.
He added: “We must show the world that if you imprison a British citizen on trumped up charges you will pay a very heavy price because Britain is a major player on the world stage and intends to remain one. Allowing ourselves to be pushed around like this at the moment of post Brexit renewal sends the opposite signal.”
Hunt was reportedly angered by the FCDO’s insistence that they have no statutory duty to provide consular assistance to Brits unfairly detained abroad. The FCDO claimed they work “tirelessly to support British citizens around the world” but unless they mean passport services, nothing could be farther from the truth.
Hunt understood the complexities in dealing with Iran but there is no excuse for the FCDO’s abysmal effort to secure the release of British citizens wrongfully detained in allied Gulf nations like the UAE.
A Parliamentary debate was held in December last year which saw MP’s tabling the issue of FCDO support, expressing concerns that there is no legal obligation to provide support and requesting assurances that the British government is doing “everything in its power” to bring tortured grandfather Albert Douglas and young footballer, Billy Hood, home. An investigation into the abuse of Albert Douglas was later undertaken with Dubai’s medical board finding that he had suffered serious injuries as a result of being beaten by prison guards. The 60 year old frail grandfather has been living with broken bones for over a year in prison and still requires multiple surgeries. He was originally jailed for a bounced cheque that a forensic investigation later ruled was not even his. He has essentially been held as an economic hostage to pressure and extort funds while his locally held assets have been looted.
The FCDO is not taking human rights abuses seriously enough, especially when there is a Coroner’s Court Inquiry into the death of young Lee Bradley Brown who died in custody as a result of police brutality. It is the very fact that Britain did not push authorities enough after his death, that the UAE feels emboldened to continue abusing citizens. Jeremy Hunt suggested sanctions against the UAE when Matthew Hedges was detained and tortured after he was accused of being a spy. Baroness Whitaker and Andy Slaughter, MP recently suggested sanctions and increased travel warnings to the UAE but the FCDO prioritised economics over human rights. In doing so, the UK once again diminished their power and influence in the region.
UAE authorities lie to the FCDO on a frequent basis. Albert Douglas complained on multiple occasions that he had not received his heart medication. When the UK asked their Emirati counterparts, they were simply told “yes yes, he has it” and the UK would take that at face value, seemingly believing them over the protesting detainee. When the FCDO have been told a prisoner has been beaten or mistreated, they simply “raise a ticket” and do not insist on seeing the prisoner. The FCDO was told on multiple occasions that they could not see Billy Hood after he complained he had been beaten and had an unattended ear infection for months.
Both Billy and Albert have been widely reported in the media, raised at Parliamentary debates and brought to the attention of Liz Truss, but their wrongful detentions have still not been resolved. It doesn’t help that we have MP’s sitting on UK-UAE business councils and significant Emirati influence into think tanks and media outlets, but all of this serves to highlight the need for services to British citizens to be reviewed and even compartmentalised.
The conflicting interests of the FCDO are intolerable, put citizens at risk and diminish British influence abroad.