Foreign Office report on human rights skims over UK record
Focus, partnership and joined-up advocacy in defence of human rights - the UK Foreign Office's lost vocation, as revealed by the diplomats’ own annual report. Rohan Jayasekera comments
18 Mar 10

Focus, partnership and joined-up advocacy in defence of human rights – the UK Foreign Office’s lost vocation, as revealed by the diplomats’ own annual report. Rohan Jayasekera comments

One of the few lasting legacies of the Robin Cook years at the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office is its Annual Report on Human Rights, a yearly review of the world’s rights abuses and the British government’s considered view of them.

This year’s edition — the 12th — weighs in at and 194 full-colour pages. Foreign Secretary David Miliband came straight from the airport and a plane from China to launch its publication in London on Wednesday.

As expected this year’s report carried a few qualified defences of suspect policy, such as the UK’s decision not to “fully endorse” the Goldstone Report on Gaza and its failed bid to resist publication of seven-paragraphs of a judgment of an account of Guantanamo prisoner Binyam Mohammed’s torture in order to protect “intelligence sharing” with the US.

But mostly, the Annual Report is a concise account of the world’s human rights ills and an accounting of the government’s efforts to address them. And the report still retains the ambition of clarity and focus that was Robin Cook’s own wish for the Foreign Office.

A good part of that focus is due to the report’s singling out of “countries of concern” — 22 in 2009. This prioritisation is more than just about pagination. When the reports first started publication, this focus on certain countries over others — as frustrating as it was for rights activists concerned for nations off the UK’s list — noticeably improved the working ways of the entire Foreign Office.

UK embassy staff in the target countries were expected to significantly raise their game. They and desk staff in London got more resources and clearer mandates for rights advocacy. The habit of looking for areas of intervention where UK diplomats could contribute most effectively also fostered greater cooperation with journalists, experts and NGOs.

Yet today the Foreign Office seems more concerned with clarity of political message than effectiveness of partnership. It was once usual practice to ask free expression groups for a list of individual cases of prisoners of conscience that embassy staff could concentrate on. In recent years that focus has tended to be lost to a broad-brush approach that bows to the dogma of reactive “strategic communications”.

Much of the hand-in-hand work with free expression groups Index on Censorship would expect from the FCO a decade ago has given way to fairly superficial engagement and sharing of general policy documents. Government ministers stopped attending meetings with free expression groups and the number of briefings by and for NGOs visibly reduced.

This recently led William Horsley and Colin Bickler of the UK National Commission for UNESCO’s Communications & Information Committee to pen a forthright 2,300 word email to the Foreign Office, co-signed by Index on Censorship chief executive John Kampfner and more than a dozen other individuals and organisations. They urged the Foreign Office to “press governments worldwide to live up to their formal commitments to protect freedom of expression and the safety of journalists and others who exercise that right.”

The message called for a re-energising of the FCO’s Free Expression Panel, which in the days of Robin Cook and a few years thereafter was the key forum for engagement between experts, activists and the Foreign Office. “We ask you to restore the practice of addressing detailed work with lists of journalists or others in need of support from the UK government and civil society,” advised the email.

A “flood of resolutions and texts” had often proven ineffectual in the face of “a relentless rise in the number of killings and violent attacks against journalists worldwide”. More effort was needed to “set a real example of coordination between government and active civil society and expert non-governmental organisations.”

The email made a strong case for the UK to act through the world’s UN and intergovernmental organisations and ensure that cases of violence and persecution of journalists are prosecuted in all jurisdictions.

Stronger words from the UK on international bodies — particularly against impunity for murderers of journalists — are essential, especially ahead of the International Red Cross’s policy-setting Conference in 2011 and, with an eye to Russia’s murderous record on free speech, the UK’s chairing of the Council of Europe in 2011-12.

There is also a much missed level of openness in relations these days. Whatever former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray’s later disputes with the FCO, it was Whitehall diplomats working through the Free Expression Panel that provided a copy of his October 2002 speech that controversially attacked US tolerance of torture in Tashkent, specifically for Index on Censorship to publish.

But the real effect of the FCO’s contribution is felt where the focus directs action from Whitehall to the embassies themselves. The UK ambassador to Nicaragua’s persistent interest in the case of persecuted women’s rights activist Patricia Orozco last year, or embassy level funding support for free expression advocacy NGO Article 19’s expert advice to Nepal’s constitutional drafters, are two good examples.

David Miliband promised more such practical help to meet specific needs. “That means funding projects to give a greater voice to civil society in places such as Vietnam and Pakistan…

“Condemning the oppression of journalists in Russia, human rights campaigners in Belarus, opposition politicians in Syria, trade unionists in Colombia, and gay rights activists in Uganda, Burundi and Malawi. These are all small steps. But each one matters.”

But to cite one example, the right of human rights advocates to travel freely and without harassment is effectively raised and defended at international and regional level, and strongly communicated to repressive governments. Yet sometimes the key step is to back the diplomatic words up by simply sending an embassy official down to the airport to see the advocates in question safely catch their plane.

Austrian diplomats once did all that — including the airport wave-off – in response to Index on Censorship and other groups’ raised concerns about Tunisian harassment of travelling dissidents. Time for the UK Foreign Office to routinely show that kind of accessibility, adaptability and engagement in human rights on the ground.

By Rohan Jayasekera

Rohan Jayasekera is a journalist, editor and online free expression advocate, tracking human rights, digital media, cultures of change and the conflict zeitgeist.