Skip to main content

Civilian Translators and Interpreters

Volume 765: debated on Wednesday 21 October 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will mark the United Kingdom’s Presidency of the UN Security Council in November 2015 by tabling a draft resolution on the protection of civilian translators and interpreters in conflict situations.

My Lords, in asking the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, I declare an interest as vice-president of the Chartered Institute of Linguists.

My Lords, the Government consistently use the influence provided by our seat on the UN Security Council to urge all states to increase the protection of civilians in conflict situations. Interpreters and translators are, like all civilians, entitled to protection during armed conflict under international humanitarian law. The United Kingdom has no current plans to table a UN Security Council resolution on the protection of interpreters and translators during its presidency in November.

My Lords, that reply is disappointing because interpreters and translators in conflict situations are not just like all other civilians. It is a hazardous profession and their vulnerability continues well after the conflict is over, as we have seen in Afghanistan. Do Her Majesty’s Government accept that interpreters and translators deserve to be on the same footing as journalists in conflict zones, who already enjoy extra protection in international law? The UN resolution on journalists received unanimous support so if not in November, when will the UK support similar action to protect vulnerable linguists, such as the draft resolution being proposed by a global alliance of professional and voluntary organisations?

My Lords, the situation with journalists is different. We supported UN Security Council Resolution 2222 in May on the protection of journalists because of the unique role they play in building open and democratic societies and the increased dangers they face as a consequence. Freedom of expression and of the media are essential qualities of any functioning democracy.

My Lords, the total net migration into the United Kingdom last year was 330,000 people. Why was it impossible to let in Afghan interpreters, whose lives were in great danger and who very often saved the lives of our servicemen? I think their total number was something like 130.

I think the figure my noble friend mentions is fairly close. Around 130 of the locally engaged staff have successfully come to the United Kingdom with their families, which amounts to 460 people.

My Lords, are Ministers still unaware of any case of a translator or interpreter in Afghanistan being killed following intimidation, as they were in August? Might an alternative to the suggestion made by the noble Baroness be for the Security Council to invite the UNHCR to survey the schemes for the protection of civilian translators and interpreters that have been developed by the various NATO countries in Afghanistan, in order to identify best practice and make recommendations on meeting the obligation to protect?

My Lords, I cannot comment on any individual cases but I can say that we continue to lobby strongly at the United Nations for measures that will improve the protection of civilians as a whole in conflict areas. This requires a greater compliance with international laws by state and non-state actors, an improved response and action by the international community, and support to states to develop their capabilities to protect their own populations.

My Lords, again on Afghanistan, does the Minister accept that the British public may have doubts about the validity of claims for asylum from those coming from what are safe countries in the Balkans but that there is a great well of sympathy for those who have put their lives in danger to help this country?

I agree with much of what the noble Lord says. In Bosnia, for example, we provided our local staff with a financial payment on redundancy when their services were no longer required as the campaign drew on. In Iraq there was another scheme. Different countries require different schemes and it was not felt that the same scheme that was available in Iraq would have been suitable in Afghanistan.

Can the noble Earl return to the question that my noble friend raised with him a few moments ago, specifically as to why journalists are covered—as they are by the Geneva Conventions—but translators and interpreters are not? Do we have any plans to seek an amendment to the conventions so that they might be so covered?

My Lords, I do not think there is a great deal I can add to the answer I have already given to the noble Baroness. I am not sure whether the noble Lord is aware that 64 civilian journalists and support staff have been killed so far this year. The whole world grieved at the events in Paris earlier this year. It is important to remember that journalists and bloggers face intimidation and violence around the world as well.

My Lords, I do not think anybody in this House would disagree with my noble friend in what he says about journalists. But we are talking about another, truly unique, category of people—those who assist us, sometimes when our forces are at the point of death, and who are giving of their services in an exemplary way. Can we not back, or even introduce, a resolution in the UN that will give them the same degree of protection as journalists rightly enjoy?

My Lords, I do not want to get repetitive on this subject but, as I have said, we continue to press other countries in the United Nations about civilians in danger. However, at the moment, we do not feel that it is right to treat interpreters in the same way as journalists.

My Lords, the Minister explained that different packages are offered in Iraq and in Afghanistan. Can he explain why there is a difference, bearing in mind the circumstances of conflict going on in both countries?

I thank the noble Lord for giving me an opportunity to explain the reason. In Iraq, our translators were recruited from the areas they were going to work in; in Afghanistan, they were recruited from areas away from where they were going to work.