Why doesn’t the FCO speak out on behalf of Raif Badawi? Minister and officials respond

“If you go straight for the megaphone diplomacy it is almost always counter-productive”

Baroness Anelay

In September I attended the launch of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office’s Magna Carta Partnerships programme, a new fund that seeks to promote legal expertise and the rule of law around the world.  FCO Minister Baroness Anelay was joined by current and former diplomats for a panel discussion on how good governance and robust legal institutions can strengthen the rule of law, and in so doing, also protect human rights.

The British Government is regularly criticised for its apparent support for human rights abusing regimes such as Saudi Arabia or Bahrain.  So during the Q&A session I was able to ask the Minister and other panellists why our Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and officials overseas do not make more public statements on behalf of political prisoners like Raif Badawi.

You can listen to the exchange via the player below and on SoundCloud.  Or you can just read the transcript.


Robert Sharp (English PEN): We campaign on free speech issues, most recently, Raif Badawi, a political prisoner in Saudi Arabia and Abduljalil Al-Singace in Bahrain.  With countries like that the UK government is criticised for not speaking out, for not condemning.

Indeed Baroness Anelay, your own response in the House of Lords about Raif Badawi was criticised in the press, and we had to wring the word ‘condemn’ out of Mr Ellwood in a recent debate.  And we’re told by officials — and indeed, you told me when I doorstepped you about this at the last event, that the softly-softly, behind-the-scenes approach is most appropriate in those cases.

Which is very frustrating for activists such as myself to hear.  I wonder if you but also everyone else on the panel, especially the pragmatists like Mr Riley and Mr Fenn, could talk about the calculus, the decision-making, that goes into when you try that behind the scenes approach and when you actually use the fantastic pulpit that the British Government has.

Because to a lot of people it seems as though that calculus is based on whether they sell us oil, and whether we sell them guns.

Baroness Anelay of St John’s (Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office): I would start by saying that the fantastic pulpit that we have is often that softly-softly behind the scenes… even I find that frustrating, because that’s not the way I operate and working for NGOs, and I’ve worked in a society where, if you have the permission of the individual, to say certain things on their behalf and you are able to go out and do it publically.

There are circumstances in which we can ask our diplomats or ministers to act on people’s behalf, and then we need to ensure that first of all that they and they families are comfortable with exactly what we say, and with the consequences of what that can bring, before we do so. We also have to bear in mind the implications for other people who may be, either already in detention in that country, or may face possible prosecution in the future.

So it is frustrating sometimes to have to say things quietly behind the scenes. But it doesn’t mean that that voice is silent or silenced, because the negotiations we can have with countries such as Saudi Arabia, where we have a long term relationships with them, a very positive one, can be very strong behind the scenes.

But when I spoke in parliament, I know only part of what I [said] was reported, was recorded.  That doesn’t worry me. The media will do what they feel is right, they will focus on particular parts. What I was trying to do was to put against the background that we in no way accept that there should be a legal system that has the death penalty or the kind of treatment that has been meted out to Raif Badawi, that’s not what we stand for.  But, I also through gritted teeth, have to accept, that there appears to be, and I say “appears” to be, support within that particular country for that particular course of action.  My long term wish is that I can change that public view.  And that’s my vow: However long or short my life is as a Minister, my life has been involved in promoting human rights and free speech and aim is to carry on doing just that.

Thom Reilly, Head of UK Government Relations, Shell, and former Deputy Head of Mission in the British Embassy in Cairo: There are some really interesting examples here where megaphone or roof-top diplomacy is actually absolutely counter-productive, because it triggers accusations of neocolonialism, it raises questions about nationalism, you actually end up promoting ultra-nationalism on the recipient side.  And then there are all sorts of questions about interference in a sovereign state, so I’m not saying that…  —and I hope you got from my speech that diplomacy is about giving difficult messages—but diplomacy is also about opening the channels that enable those diplomatic messages to be effective.  And if you go straight for the megaphone diplomacy it is almost always counter-productive.

And it robs you of an escalation strategy.  So if your quiet messages aren’t working, if your Second Secretary, and your First Secretary, and your Deputy Head of Mission,  your Ambassador and your Minister and your Secretary of State have all failed in their quiet diplomacy behind the scenes, then you’ve still got somewhere to go.

But I can see, from the outside, you’re not seeing all that, and quite right too because quiet diplomacy is about protecting that confidentiality of communication. That’s frustrating, and you know, there’s a bit of “well take my word for it, its all going on”—it is, and I’ve been in some very very uncomfortable meetings where, you know, we’ve been passing very difficult messages on human rights and the other side have met them with really stone yfaced glares. But they’re going on, and you have to respect that there is a process, and that diplomacy has created to allow the process to happen.

Rob Fenn, Head of Human Rights and Democracy Department, Foreign & Commonwealth Office: I would only add that I do take it as a compliment to be called a pragmatist! And I think that one of the most exciting things about doing human rights work at the Foreign Office is that we use every single lever at our disposal and that can sometimes be a Minister parachuting in and banging the table, that’s the ultimate ‘nuclear option’, but it goes right through a really bewildering variety of avenues.

Just within the human rights council itself, running now in Geneva, we get into very anoraky discussions about whether its a question fit for item 10, technical operation, or item 4, countries of concern, or item 2, response to the high commissioner!

We have our own projects, so we run projects in many countries around the world, the Minister has brought out how today’s fund we are launching, is carving a little bit of money from the end of the financial year for a whole suite of projects that we have, to try and see whether in this area of democracy and the Rule of Law there is a little gap which we can plug. But actually the Human Rights and Democracy Programme runs right accross the human rights world, whether its doing work on Freedom of Religion and Belief in Syria, or business and human rights in Columbia.  So there really is no limit to the variety of our human rights advocacy—we just have to try to pick the one that works.

1 thought on “Why doesn’t the FCO speak out on behalf of Raif Badawi? Minister and officials respond”

  1. This was interesting to hear and then read. I had to read it as only your voice Rob was really clear . You speak very well and I like the use of the word calculus ! Keep up the good work.

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