This blog post was published under the 2015 to 2024 Conservative government

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Rob Fenn

Head of Human Rights and Democracy Department, FCO

Part of FCDO Human Rights

10th December 2016 London, UK

Human Rights Day 2016

Box-ticking, or changing the real world? That was a question posed at our Minister’s event to mark Human Rights Day. Most people I talk to are ready to agree that the UK government tries to do the right thing. But many wonder whether we are getting past the level of generic reassurances, from other governments set in their wicked ways.

I’ve been considering how fully that question gets answered – by our event at the FCO on 8 December and all the rest of our ‘communications’ (of which this blog is, of course, another example).

My conclusion, I think, is that publicity only gets you so far. To reassure a sceptical audience fully, you have to help them see for themselves.

Our Human Rights Day event was designed to do just that, starting with the presence of the FCO’s Minister for Human Rights and the account she gave of her personal commitment. Baroness Anelay supervises the FCO’s human rights work in great detail; and she delivers parts of it in person, in her meetings with foreign leaders and civil society all round the world. Her latest visit is to Central America, with a variety of human rights problems on her agenda. All other FCO Ministers do this on their travels. FCO Ministers like to see for themselves too.

To help our audience come with us, to the frontline of human rights work, we asked our Ambassador to Burundi to provide an account of his experiences. I was not the only one who felt transported, rather uncomfortably, to a prison cell in Bujumbura, where school children had been incarcerated for doodling on a picture of the President.

On screens around the room (and across the internet on Human Rights Day), video testimonials by other British diplomats showed that human rights are a network-wide undertaking for the FCO. It goes on 365 days a year. But we make a special effort to showcase this activity in the run-up to Human Right Day each year. Not because it makes for ‘good comms’, but because it is a great way to generate healthy competition between our posts, and to learn from each other. I can’t wait to read what my colleagues got up to this year.

A third, I hope convincing element of our event was that we built it round a human rights project. Projects are one of the best means we have to “get beyond government box-ticking”. Projects are implemented by civil society for civil society. Stonewall had brought to London human rights defenders from LGB&T communities in the Balkans and Turkey to learn from each other’s experiences of access to justice – or its opposite. Their spokesman, Amarildo, gave a moving and dignified description of what they face in their daily lives. This was just one of the 129 projects we are supporting this year under the Magna Carta Fund for Human Rights and Democracy.

As well as Stonewall’s guests, our audience contained Chevening scholars from many different countries, all following postgraduate courses in human rights at British universities – an example, as the Minister put it, of our investing in the next generation of human rights defenders.

So here’s my response to anyone who would like to see for themselves what the FCO is doing about human rights. Get involved with us. We hugely value external expertise – of which British civil society is an unparalleled repository. We might be able to take your project ideas to one of our posts, who are always on the look out for programme partners and implementers. Together we could change the world, one project at a time.

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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