Avatar photo

Rob Fenn

Head of Human Rights and Democracy Department, FCO

Part of FCDO Human Rights

30th June 2014 London, UK

London Pride has been handed down to us; London Pride is a flower that’s free.

What do human rights and democracy have to do with each other (besides both featuring in the name of my department, HRDD)? And how does the work we do on democracy – which can seem nebulous – fit together with human rights work, which is easier to pigeonhole? Or with my favourite Noel Coward song (and beer)?

Rainbow flag flying over FCO
Rainbow flag flying over FCO

Most of HRDD’s work and the issues associated with it (like the London Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict) do what they say on the tin.

But what about democracy? It’s obviously connected with human rights. They enable each other. Aspects of democracy feature in the Universal Declaration and in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. But there must be ways of thinking about democracy, and promoting it, other than as a sub-set of human rights; why else the extra “D” in HRD Department?

The simplest reason is that we are a docking point for the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. WFD is a unique organisation through which the FCO and DFID promote democracy abroad. Though WFD is backed by a wider coalition than our two Ministries. WFD is a channel for the democratising vocation of the UK Parliament itself, for the individual political parties within it, and – pretty directly – for voters across the country.

That last bit is a leap, but think: democracy is about sharing. The sense of community that takes citizens into the polling booth tends to make them care about the state of the world at large – especially in this Internet age. And political parties are, by definition, motivated by what the voters want.

In turn, this ensures that WFD is more than an implementing agency for the Departments who pay its bills. The projects it conducts around the world benefit from expertise and enthusiasm donated by parliamentarians and parliamentary officials who are in the democracy business thanks to a powerful blend of personal conviction and professional self-interest.

This last week has seen the culmination of the 26th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva; “celebration” of the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture (see how we marked that sombre occasion), and celebration in flamboyant style of Pride in London.

“London Pride” is a way I personally might bring this all together. It’s one of my favourite songs, penned by Noel Coward in Paddington Station in 1941, as he watched phlegmatic Londoners going about their business unfazed by a night of bombing. He wrote:

In our city darkened now, street and square and crescent;

We can feel our living past in our shadowed present.

Ghosts beside our starlit Thames, who lived and loved and died

Keep throughout the ages… London Pride.

The freedom people fought for in both World Wars – which are so much on our minds during this year’s centenary remembrance of 1914 – was fantastically on show during Pride in London 2014. And its strapline – #freedomto… – is, for me, a great way to unify the human rights work we do with the democratic context which drives it, and which we want for others.

London Pride has been handed down to us;

London Pride is a flower that’s free.

London Pride means our own dear town to us,

And our pride it for ever will be.

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.

Follow Rob