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Ben Rogers: The Foreign Office has a 'How Can I Not Help You Today?' culture

Ben_rogers Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist specialising in South Asia. He serves as Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission and was Conservative Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham in the 2005 General Election.

Let me get straight to the point. With some admirable exceptions, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) disappoints me – to put it, as they say, diplomatically. I don’t want to cause a diplomatic incident, but words like “unoriginality”, “inflexibility”, “reactiveness”, and “a lack of imagination, creativity and soul” spring to mind.

As I say, there are some superb exceptions. I have been fortunate to come across some courageous and extremely helpful diplomats who, whether at the FCO in London or in ‘post’ in a particular country, have proved to be valuable friends. On some occasions they have, through their interventions, provided protection to dissidents and human rights defenders in countries ruled by brutal regimes. But – and it is a big ‘but’ – such people are few and far between in the FCO. It is like the old nursery rhyme about a little girl – when they are good, they are very very good, but when they are bad, they are horrid.

Let me provide a few anecdotes to illustrate my point, before I proceed to the contrasts with other foreign ministries and some potential solutions. In my work as a human rights activist, I deal with the FCO on an almost daily basis. With some exceptions, I find the culture is a “can’t-do” culture. An American friend summed up his experience of the FCO with the motto: “What can I NOT do for you today?”

At the height of the crisis in Burma in September, I was suddenly summoned to a meeting with the responsible minister, Meg Munn MP, at an hour’s notice. I didn’t mind that it was short notice, as I was pleased the FCO was finally waking up and wishing to engage. I jumped on a train. Unsurprisingly in modern Britain, my train was delayed due to a signal failure. I got to Waterloo and hopped in a cab. Again, unsurprisingly, despite Mr Livingstone’s beloved congestion charge, I got stuck in traffic. Despite these hurdles, I arrived at the FCO reception in King Charles Street only five minutes late. But it was there – not on our railways or in our congested traffic – that I met my biggest obstacle. The conversation with the young – and, to put it with a lack of diplomacy, gormless – receptionist went as follows:

“I have an appointment with the Minister, Meg Munn, at 5pm. I am sorry I am a few minutes late,” I said.

“But I have locked the cupboard,” she replied. “It’s after 5pm.”

I stared at her in disbelief and she stared at me with an even greater degree of gormlessness than was natural or becoming. Eventually an idea dawned on her. For her, it was the height of initiative and imagination – perhaps even idealism.

“I could …”, she paused for effect, “… phone up for you.”

“Well that would be much appreciated,” I said, amazed at how calmly I said it.

“But I can’t give you a pass. It’s after 5pm,” she added.

It was 5.05pm. With that, she phoned up, and then finished putting her nail varnish in her handbag and left.

As I sat in the reception at the FCO, I noticed that there was one other person waiting. She was the icing on the cake. An elderly lady in a mackintosh, she took out a detective novel which she began to read with a magnifying glass. I wondered what movie set I had stumbled onto. Fawlty Towers takes over the FCO?

A few minutes later, Meg Munn’s secretary arrived. She was a bit more spruce, and we went to the gate to go through to the courtyard and up to the minister’s office. But a snag – the security guard spotted I had no pass. “He’s with me and he’s here to see the Minister,” the secretary explained. The security guard insisted I needed a pass – so back to the abandoned reception we trudged.

There, at reception, was another security guard fumbling through a cardboard box. “She’s locked the passes in the cupboard, but there are a few spare ones here,” he said. With that, he found one and off we went.

As well as illustrating in almost Monty Python-esque terms the incompetence of our bureaucracy, this experience is a parable to illustrate the FCO’s attitudes to anything that is not terribly ‘convenient’. I am not saying that issues of human rights and the suppression of democracy are not on the FCO’s agenda. That would be patently absurd. They are there – and from time to time FCO officials mumble platitudes about them. Occasionally, they even take action. But, with some outstanding exceptions, in my experience human rights and democracy are too often locked away in a cupboard like the passes at reception – and the person who has the key goes home at 5pm. I would like that to change. I would like human rights and democracy promotion to be a priority – to be in the hearts and minds and on the desks of every single FCO official.

Another example. Earlier this year, I was due to have a Burmese intern to come and work with me for three months. Unfortunately, however, despite having an invitation letter from my organisation and references from two Parliamentarians, the British Embassy in Bangkok told her that because she was a Burmese passport holder she should apply in Rangoon – and turned her away. When it was explained, first by her and then more vociferously by me and several Parliamentarians, that she was a refugee, and that for her to return to Rangoon carrying letters of recommendation from an MP, a Peer and me, all of whom are prominent critics of the regime, would be the fastest way for her to be jailed, tortured, raped or even killed, the FCO did not budge.  They stalled, delayed, fudged – and in the meantime she was offered a placement in an NGO in Prague. In complete contrast to our FCO, the Czechs gave her a visa within days and we lost her. Why could the Czechs give her a visa and we couldn’t? We were, after all, the colonial rulers in Burma – don’t we owe their people something? And why do we have such a topsy-turvy immigration and asylum policy – where we give visas to militant Islamist preachers like Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi (as we have in the past) extremists such as Abu Hamza and Omar Bakri Mohammed to operate here for so long, yet deny visas to Burmese dissidents who share our values and present no threat whatsoever?

Turning from Burma to the other country I work on, Pakistan, I have some more priceless stories. Earlier this year a series of threats were made to Christians in various parts of Pakistan by extremists. I wrote about it on this site. They were told if they did not convert to Islam, they would be killed. I was in daily contact with sources in Pakistan, and in one phone call they appealed to me desperately to ask the UK and other governments to urge the Pakistani authorities to provide proper police protection for vulnerable Christian communities facing the threat of attack. I rang the FCO Pakistan desk. To my astonishment I heard words I did not think were still used today. I was told: “This is an internal matter for Pakistan, and we cannot interfere in the internal affairs of another country”.

I explained to her that all we were asking for was representations to the Pakistani authorities, to urge them to prevent a slaughter of innocent people by terrorists. “I can pass this on to the High Commission in Islamabad, for their information. That’s all I can do,” she said. On another occasion, this same person, in response to a request I made to have the names of relevant people within the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office dealing with Pakistan, to invite to an event, replied by email: “I have been told it is not within my job description to provide this information”. What can I NOT do for you today?

Even when the FCO – or the Department for International Development (DFID) for that matter – do act in the right way, it is rarely proactive. Instead it is as a result of a long hard slog by activists pushing the boulder slowly up the hill. The FCO is finally acting in the right way in regard to Burma, working for stronger EU sanctions and supporting UN Security Council initiatives – but only because they were pushed to by campaigners and Parliament. DFID finally doubled its budget for Burma, but again only because there was outrage at its rejection of the House of Commons International Development Committee’s recommendations and they knew they had to do something. I am pleased they do react to pressure, and it shows that our efforts pay off – but the question is, why do we need to push them? It is so tiring. Why can’t they think of these things themselves?

I recently visited Prague, and met with senior Czech Foreign Ministry officials. I attended a meeting with the former Czech President Vaclav Havel. It was a breath of fresh air. I felt even more ashamed of the British FCO and DFID – and inspired by the Czechs. They have as an explicit foreign policy priority the promotion of democracy and human rights. They are pursuing this in all sorts of creative, imaginative, proactive ways. In Burma, Belarus and Cuba they are providing practical support to dissidents and democracy movements. Sometimes it is overt and explicit, while other times it is by necessity subtle and covert. But either way, it is clear what their priority is. As Vaclav Havel told me, “other interests should not be superior to human dignity.” It is essential, and in our own interest, he added, to challenge “evil” – totalitarianism, tyanny, extremism – at its roots, when it first becomes evident, before it becomes fully-fledged. Why don’t our mandarins see that?

I had a thirty minute meeting with the Czech Foreign Ministry in regard to some specific funding proposals I had submitted at their invitation. They had one or two tough questions, but once I had dealt with those to their satisfaction, they said suddenly and with refreshing efficiency: “Fine. We will fund this project, and this project.” We shook hands and the meeting ended. Why can’t DFID and the FCO behave the same way?

In my experience, like the Czechs, the US State Department is similarly proactive. I believe our diplomats – be they Sir Humphreys or Sir Jeremys, or Traceys and Sharons – have much to learn from the Czechs, the Americans and others. It is like chalk and cheese – a proactive, creative and flexible approach on the one hand, contrasting with a reactive, unimaginative, uncreative, unidealistic, inflexible, rigidity on the other. I can hear the spasms of fury in Whitehall already as they think about all the changes this would involve – like perhaps occasionally working beyond 5pm? (gasp) – but I hope a future Conservative Government would implement a very radical culture change in the FCO and DFID to put the defence and promotion of human rights and democracy at the very heart of foreign policy – and we should be consulting the Czechs and Americans on how to do it.


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