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Rob Fenn

Head of Human Rights and Democracy Department, FCO

Part of FCDO Human Rights

19th May 2014 London, UK

Remembrance on the way to the coffee shop (what connects IHRA and R2P?)

Photo Credit, Flickr user Ted Aytan
Photo Credit, Flickr user Ted Aytan

My department moved offices last week – from rooms “in need of modernisation” on the third floor of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, down to freshly refurbished accommodation on the grand first floor. We’re more densely packed down there (“warm-desking”), but morale is high and the coffee shop closer.

My new route to mid-morning latte takes me past a bronze sculpture I had not noticed before. The FCO is full of history – some of it indecipherable; some of it painfully familiar (like the plaque for colleagues who died in the bombing of our Istanbul Consulate). This newly noticed memorial turned out to be to members of the Diplomatic Service who had saved Jews from the Holocaust.

I studied it with interest because I was on my way to a meeting of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), which the UK chairs this year. Later that evening I attended a seminar about Jan Karski, a diplomat who warned his government in exile and the Allies about death camps in occupied Poland.

The debate suggested that the Allies could not have saved millions. At the time Karski raised the alarm the battle of El Alemein was in the future, the Russian Army was in retreat on the Eastern Front, there were no British or American soldiers on the continent of Europe, and we had no fighters capable of escorting bombers as far as Auschwitz.

But we might have saved thousands. That the Holocaust ran its course was partly a failure of imagination. When Karski’s story was published in British newspapers, most people found it impossible to believe.

If we couldn’t believe it then, with the horrors of war all around, how much harder for people to comprehend today – so that we stand a better chance of preventing the next atrocity to follow in its wake, like the genocide in Rwanda (a twentieth anniversary marked last month in the UN Security Council).

That’s why IHRA’s work is so important – to ensure that the Holocaust is believed, taught and stared in the face. It’s no easy task, our conference showed, even for the self-selecting group of IHRA member states. A delegate from central Europe explained contemporary problems by referring to his region’s “twisted history”. He contrasted it with the UK’s history, which had run “straight ahead since at least 1066”.

That was intended and taken as a compliment. But it has not felt straightforward to the inhabitants of these islands. Nor, in the present, to parents who want to help their children learn from history, including the Holocaust. I asked a member of the UK delegation who is a Holocaust Survivor whether I could bring my boys when I visited his house – to hear his story. I told him they were nine and ten. He urged me not to bring them. They were too young to benefit from an account of murder on an industrial scale.

And the judgement calls in foreign policy over when and how to intervene are not straightforward either; witness the controversy around “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P). This week, addressing the FCO’s Leadership Conference, the Foreign Secretary instanced a country which “shares our values but not our foreign policy.” It protects the human rights of its own citizens, but declines to “interfere” in the domestic affairs of others, not even by supporting resolutions at the UN Human Rights Council.

We were talking about an “Emerging Power”. We worry that, when such countries have “emerged”, with the clout to change the “rules of the game”, they may have forgotten the horrors that drove those who gave us the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Against that day, the scholars, activists and educators who sustain IHRA deserve our support and gratitude.

About Rob Fenn

Rob Fenn has been Head of the FCO’s Human Rights and Democracy Department since March 2014. His last formal responsibility for human rights was in the mid 1990s, when he…

Rob Fenn has been Head of the FCO’s Human Rights and Democracy Department
since March 2014. His last formal responsibility for human rights was in
the mid 1990s, when he served as UK Delegate on the Third Committee of
the General Assembly in New York (with annual excursions to what was
then the Commission on Human Rights in Geneva). Recent celebrations of
the twentieth anniversary of the creation of the post of UN High
Commissioner for Human Rights – a resolution he helped pilot through the
GA – came a shock. The intervening 20 years have flown: in Rome
(EU/Economics), in London (Southern European Department), in Nicosia
(Deputy High Commissioner) and latterly in Bandar Seri Begawan.
Julia and their two sons loved Brunei, where British High Commissioners
are made especially welcome. The family’s activities included regular
walks in the pristine rainforest, expeditions upriver to help conserve
the Sultanate’s stunning biodiversity, and home movie making (in Brunei
it is almost impossible to take a bad photograph).
all those saturated colours, Rob worried that the move back to Britain
might feel like a shift into black and white. But the reunion with
family, friends and colleagues, and the boys’ brave reintegration into a
North London school, have been ample compensation. Julia’s main regret
is that, now she walks on Hampstead Heath, she no longer has an excuse
to carry a machete (“parang”).
problem is summed up in two types of reaction from friends outside the
office. On hearing that he is “in charge of human rights and democracy
at the FCO”, some think it sounds like a vast job: what else is there?
Others think it sounds wishy-washy: not in the national interest. Rob’s
mission is to take the Foreign Secretary’s dictum that “our values are
our interests”, and help his colleagues translate it into action in a
world so varied it can contain both Brunei’s clouded leopard and the
civil war in Syria.

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