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Diplomatic Protection

Volume 685: debated on Monday 23 October 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What is their response to requests for diplomatic protection from United Kingdom residents and refugees granted political asylum in the United Kingdom who are detained, or otherwise in need, abroad.

My Lords, the Government are not in a position to provide diplomatic protection or consular assistance to foreign nationals. This includes those who have refugee status in the United Kingdom and who are or have been resident in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. I shall refer specifically to Guantanamo Bay. The UK wishes to see this prison camp closed and, indeed, has described it as an abomination. The US wants to return nine of those still held, two of whom have refugee status in the UK and whose rights should therefore be indistinguishable from those of a UK citizen. One has long-term residency and the others various lengths of residency in the UK. None of the nine has another state to which to apply for any form of protection and none of them has been charged with an indictable offence, but the UK is apparently unwilling to accept them because of the stringent control orders imposed by the USA. I simply wish to clarify to whom, if anyone, these people can apply for justice, following well documented and severe ill treatment while being held at Guantanamo Bay.

My Lords, we tell refugees who have refugee status in the United Kingdom that should they choose to travel abroad and should difficulties arise—they are told this before they leave the United Kingdom—they can apply, as all refugees can, to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights through the local offices, which provide a full range of excellent services. We most certainly do not expect them to have to return to or to apply for assistance from the country from which they were refugees in the first place. The Home Secretary is the person who will take a decision about whether they can be returned to the United Kingdom in the event that they are released. In the judicial review, both the High Court and the Court of Appeal found that the only proper stance that he could take in these circumstances, until such time as their release became imminent, was the one that I have just described.

My Lords, is there not a need for further clarification of the law on the obligations of the British Government to long-term residents who have refugee status? We are all concerned, particularly in the Guantanamo case, about the number of people who are effectively being made stateless because they have lost or are in danger of losing their resident status here and have nowhere else to go to. What legal obligations under international and domestic law do Her Majesty’s Government recognise?

My Lords, in these cases, there are no obligations under international or domestic law. That was precisely the point that was put to the High Court and to the Court of Appeal in October, and the matter was resolved unequivocally in those courts. Of course there were discussions between the families of those individuals and my noble friend Lady Symons, who was at the time responsible for these matters. She passed on the views of those families to the United States. So we were not unhelpful to them, but we have no obligation to go further in law, and that has been the position for a very long time.

My Lords, is it not the case that diplomatic protection cannot be extended unilaterally by a single Government in the way that the original Question implies? Is it not also the case that the Government can and, indeed, do intervene on a humanitarian basis on matters relating not just to Guantanamo but to other United Kingdom residents who may be held in other countries?

My Lords, I completely agree with my noble friend. We make representations on behalf of a large number of people in an effort to persuade Governments to behave in an appropriate and humanitarian way. Indeed, I and others often have the opportunity to express views about that to the House. The whole issue of diplomatic protection has perhaps been somewhat misunderstood. It means the invocation by one state through diplomatic action or other peaceful means of settlement, on the basis of state-to-state judicial proceedings, of the responsibility of the other state for a wrongful act to the citizens of the first state. In other words, legally you can act in that context only for a citizen of your own state.