British citizens abroad will have a statutory right to receive Foreign Office consular assistance under a Labour government in plans proposed by the shadow foreign secretary, David Lammy.
The proposals come in the wake of repeated complaints by British prisoners abroad of Foreign Office indifference, or determination to put British diplomatic interests ahead of individual citizens.
In a speech to the Labour conference, Lammy will say it is time to learn the lessons from British-Iranian dual citizens such as Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and the British Sikh activist Jagtar Singh Johal, who is still being held in an Indian jail without charge.
At present there is no legal obligation for the UK government to provide consular assistance to a UK citizen, even in cases involving allegations of torture or arbitrary detention, leaving it entirely at the discretion of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and government ministers. Some EU countries such as Germany recognise a specific right of citizens to consular assistance.
The call for a legal duty on the FCDO to provide assistance to British citizens abroad has been a longstanding demand of the NGOs such as Redress after families of British citizens held abroad have often found they are left to their own devices to campaign for the release of a family member.
Lammy will vow: “Labour will end the notion that help from the British state when you are in trouble abroad depends on the whims of Tory ministers, by legislating for a new legal right to consular assistance.”
He will say: “Too often the government’s efforts to secure the release of British nationals unjustly detained abroad have been arbitrary, haphazard, uncoordinated, lacking resources and lacking transparency.
“Morad Tahbaz should not still be suffering in Iranian prison, after the Foreign Office assured his family that he would be released along with Nazanin. Alaa Abd el-Fattah should not be locked up in prison in Egypt simply for sharing a Facebook post and not even being visited by British diplomats. And it is unacceptable that Jagtar Singh Johal has faced years in arbitrary detention without ever facing a trial.”
At a seminar this month on the legal battle to release Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the lawyers said the response of the FCDO was subject to its discretion since there was no redress in the UK courts. The success of the campaign for her release had depended on it being a thorn in the side of the Foreign Office, making ministers feel there was a cost to inertia and being courageous enough to question their Foreign Office instinct to persuade the families to rely on quiet diplomacy.
Richard Ratcliffe, the husband of Zaghari-Ratcliffe, said: “The only weapon you have is to show ‘I am not going away’, and get in a position to challenge the Foreign Office to explain what they think their legal obligations are in such cases.”
He said there had sometimes been a visceral resistance not to help. He cited the fact that the Foreign Office after Nazanin was imprisoned would not visit her daughter, Gabriella, in Tehran for six months, or assert the right to visit Nazanin in prison, often citing the fact that Iran did not recognise dual citizenship.
Leanna Burnard, legal officer for Redress, says her organisation has been seeking support for a multinational policy of sanctioning those Iranian officials identifiably responsible for the policy of systematically detaining foreign and dual nationals.