Skip to main content

State Hostage Taking

Volume 735: debated on Thursday 6 July 2023

foreign affairs committee

Select Committee statement

We begin with a Select Committee statement. Alicia Kearns will speak about the publication of the Government response, HC 1596, to the sixth report of the Foreign Affairs Committee, “Stolen years: combatting state hostage diplomacy”, for up to 10 minutes, during which no interventions may be taken. At the conclusion of the statement, I will call hon. Members to ask questions on the subject of the statement and call Alicia Kearns to respond to those in turn. Questions should be brief, and Members may ask only one question each. I call the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Thank you, Mr Davies; it is a joy to make the statement under your chairmanship. I thank the House for making time for this important statement today.

Before I address the substance of the report, I pay tribute to all the former hostages and families who contributed to the inquiry, many of whom are here today. I know that today’s discussion will not be easy for them. Their testimonies were raw, incisive and driven by a determination to ensure that other people and families do not endure the pain that they have survived—and it is a tale of being a survivor. To constructively propose that we learn lessons was the goal of our report, and that is why the families contributed to it—because they want to ensure that we can better get our people home.

I also pay tribute to all those in this place who have worked tirelessly on behalf of their constituents who have been unfairly detained abroad. Interestingly, our report showed that, where Members of Parliament engage, a far more impressive response is received from the Government and far more attention is garnered for the individual’s case. Of course, it would be remiss of me not to thank the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office staff who do work tirelessly to try to get people home, but ultimately we are calling for change and improvements.

State hostage taking is, as we all know, the action of failing, autocratic and desperate states. We heard testimonies of how hostages were drugged, beaten, emotionally tortured and deprived of access to consular support, let alone the love of their families, which can give them the strength to continue. They are all survivors. Today, we have people who are being arbitrarily detained and held hostage for political leverage and advantage across the world. This is an opportunity for us to say as a Parliament that we urge all countries to immediately release those being held. In particular—I am sorry not to be able to list the names of all those being held—we call for the release of Vladimir Kara-Murza, Jimmy Lai, Morad Tahbaz and Jagtar Singh Johal. We call for the release of all those British citizens who are being unjustly detained.

It is really important that the Government take a zero-tolerance position on every incident of arbitrary detention, because the British citizens involved are not afforded their consular rights; they are not treated in line with international standards, and they end up being used as diplomatic pawns. That is where the Government must bring maximum pressure to bear, because the first priority of Government is to keep our people safe, and we are seeing an alarming increase in states actively pursuing the kidnapping of hostages as a form of foreign policy. State hostage taking and arbitrary detention are heinous and destructive and are stealing years and years of the lives of those held hostage and their families.

As I have said, this is about blackmail, and the Committee found that the Government’s approach is lacking. Disappointingly—I am really disappointed, because we had not seen this from them until now—the Government did not sufficiently engage with our recommendations and the evidence and experience of detainees and their families. In the past, every time we made a recommendation, they were taken in turn, one after another, and dealt with in real detail. This time, there were some recommendations where there was no response at all from the Government; it was almost as if they wanted to pretend that the recommendation did not exist. That is not the sort of response we normally see from the Government, so I was deeply frustrated by it.

We identified a number of key risks in the way the Government currently handle cases. First, we found a lack of consistency in the way information and updates are shared with the families of those being held hostage or arbitrarily detained. We found a lack of consistency in the way information and updates are shared more generally. We found that ministerial reshuffles have slowed progress on securing a hostage’s release, and there was no evidence of institutional knowledge being shared to ensure that that was not the case. Concerningly, we also found a trend of negotiations being deprioritised against other diplomatic priorities. Look, I am a former Foreign Office civil servant: geopolitics matters, but the ultimate job of the Foreign Office is keeping our people safe and getting them home. If we cannot do that, there should be a fundamental question about whether we are delivering as the Foreign Office.

Having reviewed the evidence, as well as international best practice, it became clear that handling hostage cases has to be designated to a specific senior official. We have seen that work in the US and the difference it has made to getting people home. We called for the creation of a director for arbitrary and complex detentions. That individual would have a mandate for co-ordinating responses to cases, acting as a consistent point of contact for families, organising cross-Government action and cutting through the silos that we know affect these cases, leading the UK’s response in multilateral fora and having a direct line to the Prime Minister, because that is how we get people free. I have sat in Cobra and National Security Council meetings where we, as officials, discussed what we could do to get people home, and it was only in that way that we ever made a meaningful difference and progress. We must have an individual who has that sole focus and who knows every single family, such as Roger Carstens in the US. He is an incredible individual—yes, it has to be the right individual—and he knows every single family and every single case. The fact that I am going to him to ask for help with British cases demonstrates how effective he can be and why we are so disappointed that there was a lack of meaningful engagement with this proposal.

In addition to that key recommendation, we looked at the lack of consistency and accuracy in public statements made by the Government in specific cases. Sometimes—this is deeply concerning—basic levels of consular access were not even afforded by the Vienna convention. We know that that is not always in the hands of the Foreign Office, but it should be making complaints and making sure that the host Government knows that that is unacceptable. There were cases where people said to us, “No, it's not our duty to go and stand outside a court,” while an arbitrarily detained person is being held and heard under appalling and completely illegal circumstances. If a Foreign Office official is not willing to stand outside a courthouse, no matter how dangerous that is, what does that say about their commitment to the British national who is potentially being drugged and beaten and who is most certainly terrified for their future? We have a duty to be there. When we have been, as in Mexico, where the ambassador stood outside, despite the fact that it was a Mexican individual who had murdered, we secured the first ever prosecution of a democratically elected—well, elected—individual for ordering the murder of a civilian. It makes a difference that we show up. Too many families feel that we do not show up and that they get standardised responses week after week.

It is therefore imperative that we use every means at our disposal to ensure even the most basic level of consular access for detained UK citizens. That means working with our allies—it is a shame that the Canada conference was cancelled—but the reality, as I hear time after time from counterparts, is that when we get together in multilateral fora, the first two hours are wasted on fighting about what arbitrary detention means. That was one the subject of our recommendations: let us decide what “arbitrarily detained” means. If we can have a definition that we use internally, we might have a chance of getting a multilateral definition agreed. The fact that we do not have one internally is a big problem.

State hostage taking and arbitrary detention are not the same, and the problem is that the Government’s current approach involves a poor classification of consular cases, which results in confusion and less effective management of cases. The incoherence in classification has created bureaucratic delays in a number of cases and damaged momentum on releases. We have found that several terms were being used to classify hostages, with Ministers and officials completely reluctant to clarify how they had reached each classification. Even when there were international determinations that someone was being arbitrarily detained, the Government did not recognise that. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council that stands up for multilateralism, we should be accepting international conclusions where a British national has been arbitrarily detained.

This confusion and inconsistency has actively harmed release efforts. The Committee therefore urges the Government to formalise and publish guidance outlining the exact criteria for determining whether the detention of a UK national by a foreign state should be considered arbitrary. There will be cases where that is difficult to ascertain, but ongoing assessment with the involvement of the family is recommended, because the family are advocates—they understand the individual and know what support they need. It is crucial that they feel they are part of the process and are not being treated as an inconvenience, which is something we heard time and again.

We conducted the inquiry in good faith. Our sole objective is to improve our ability to secure the release of UK nationals unfairly detained abroad. The recommendations we made were based on evidence and the testimony of those who came to speak to us about the cruel reality of state hostage taking.

I welcome the fact that the Government have accepted some of our recommendations to improve services provided to victims when they get home. When some people who had secured release came back, the Government met them, and there were an impressive first few days and a significant care and support package. What is worrying, however, is that it might be three or six months on when that traumatised individual is ready to share and say, “Actually, this is what I needed, and these were the missed opportunities. When those people who locked me in a room were saying these appalling things, which I had not done, I overheard their chatter, and this is what I took away that was a missed opportunity for you.” We need to do more of that.

I am disappointed. I have never made a statement before on one of the Committee’s reports, but I am doing it today because I am deeply disappointed by the lack of FCDO engagement in other areas. There seems to be an unwillingness to admit that improvements can be made, and there seemed, frankly, to be a bunker mentality during some of the hearings we had. Most concerning is that fact that the consular Minister is not actually responsible for consular cases—that is unacceptable. On the first day of Kara-Murza’s trial, I asked the consular Minister what he was doing and what his views were. He responded that he was not aware of the case. It is vital that we meaningfully get a grip of this.

In conclusion, communications can get better. The families in the Public Gallery are here because they experienced the unthinkable, and they deserve better. In the absence of Government action, it falls to Parliament to demand action and to hold the Government to account—we owe it to all those who are still arbitrarily detained. The Government’s first job is very simple: to keep their citizens safe at home and abroad, and to bring them home.

I wish to put on record my thanks to the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns), for the work the Committee does and the recommendations it has made.

As Anoosheh Ashoori’s MP, I campaigned tirelessly for his release along with his family. When I gave written evidence to the Committee, I was reminded just how badly the FCDO handled Anoosheh’s case—and Nazanin’s case as well. It is unacceptable that the FCDO does not have a consistent, comprehensive strategy in place. Does the hon. Lady therefore agree that the FCDO must urgently deal with detainees, whether they have parliamentary representation or not?

I thank the hon. Lady for all the work that she did. As our report showed, it matters when MPs take up these cases, but it should not fall to us to take them up, and that is exactly the point she is making. We have a duty to know the families and to be reassuring, but it is difficult. When I was a Foreign Office official, I was given the duty of supporting the family of someone who was being held by a terrorist group, but we did not know whether they were alive or dead. It is difficult, and we cannot always share all the information, because we do not know whether it is 100% accurate, but we can do more than we have been doing. The harm this process causes, and the trauma it results in for these families, is something we should be working to overcome. That is why we made our recommendations.

I thank the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton for her comprehensive report, and I echo the solidarity that she has expressed with the families, particularly those in the Public Gallery today. I share her disappointment at the rather defensive tone that the Government have taken in their response to these very practical and carefully considered recommendations.

Does the hon. Member have any reflections on the fact that a number of high-profile cases have involved dual nationals? Does the Committee have any sense that the Government thought they had a slightly lesser responsibility to those people or that dual nationality was a complicating factor? In fact, dual nationality is as valid as single nationality, and the Government have the same responsibilities to those people.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, and I want to apologise for having my back to everybody in the Public Gallery—it is parliamentary courtesy to address the Chair. The Committee did look at dual nationality very carefully. The problem is that some of the worst perpetrators of this heinous crime, and particularly Iran, do not recognise dual nationality.

For example, Morad Tahbaz is a British citizen. Yes, he does have Iranian citizenship, but he also has American citizenship. What do we see from the Iranians? They want to treat him as an American detainee. Why? So they can get what they see to be the most bang for their buck. Let us be clear: we need Morad to be released, because he is deeply unwell, and there were missed opportunities to bring him home. I place on record that the treatment, by certain Foreign Secretaries, of his family was shameful. It was one of the most shameful things I have heard, and I refer colleagues who are interested to the evidence that was given. We should never talk to a family in that way.

The reality is that it is difficult for us to tackle this issue and that, as soon as one person is released, these hostile states “fill the pool,” as some of them like to joke, with dual nationals, more than anyone else. We did not find that the Government necessarily deprioritised dual nationals, apart from in one specific case, but in terms of the lack of multilateral effort on saying that we will refuse to accept this issue as an excuse, they could be tougher.

I congratulate the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton, and I thank the Committee’s members for their support. In the almost six years that I have been challenging the Government on my constituent Jagtar Singh Johal’s arbitrary detention in India, I have been struck by the contrast between the professionalism and dedication of the consular prisoner teams and the seeming lack of strategy on the political side, especially when it comes to cases of arbitrary detention ruled on by the UN working group.

Paragraph 16 of the Committee’s report is perfectly clear that the Government’s approach

“is counterproductive and risks undermining an important tool, as well as the Government’s commitment to a Rules-Based International Order solution for ending this practice.”

I was therefore glad to read, in paragraph 17, the recommendation that

“when there is a UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention opinion that a detention of a UK citizen is illegal, the FCDO assumes that the case will not be judged in line with international standards and should respond accordingly.”

Can we do anything to bring the Government into line with what seems to be logical best practice?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and for his long-standing and absolute commitment to Jagtar Singh Johal and his family. It is an incredibly disturbing case: a man who was arrested while on his honeymoon to a country, and who to this day has still not been charged for supposedly leading some sort of—I do not know—counter-revolutionary effort. The reality is that there are no charges; he is arbitrarily detained, and that has been determined by the UN working group. It is utterly wrong that the British Government would not accept that international determination when we are the foremost country calling and relying on the multilateral system time after time to uphold the rule of law.

We must continue to put that pressure on. I ask the Government to think again about the decision not to accept that recommendation. There is no reason for it. As I touched on in my statement, the reality is that if we cannot get definitions right and we cannot at least accept multilateral determinations, any multilateral meetings with others will fail.

Finally, I would like to thank the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle), who has now joined us, for playing a significant role in this important inquiry.

Sitting suspended.