Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, imprisoned in Iran for espionage, has been granted formal diplomatic protection by the British Government.
UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said the move “represents formal recognition by the British Government that her treatment fails to meet Iran’s obligations under international law and elevates it to a formal state-to-state issue”. Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been reportedly denied medical treatment and legal support required by international law. According to Hunt, the decision to give Zaghari-Ratcliffe formal diplomatic protection was an “important diplomatic step which signals to Tehran that its behaviour is totally wrong”.
This rare diplomatic and legal decision does not provide Zaghari-Ratcliffe with the diplomatic immunity given to official diplomats to ensure their safe passage and protection from prosecution in a foreign country. But it does signal that the UK is no longer treating the case as a consular matter but a formal, legal dispute between Britain and Iran and can raise the case with greater ease in international bodies, such as the UN.
When UK officials raise her case with Iranian counterparts in the future, rather than just representing the interests of a British citizen, they will be represent the interests of the UK Government. This creates the possibility that Britain can take international legal action against Iran such as requesting inquiries, demanding negotiations, even suing for compensation for an “internationally wrongful act” – though this is thought to be unlikely.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe was detained in 2016 and sentenced to five years in prison for espionage but she has denied any wrongdoing. Her husband Richard Ratcliffe said the move was: “A very clear statement and so hopefully the Iranian authorities will realise this has gone on too long.”
While Hunt admitted that diplomatic protection “is unlikely to be a magic wand that leads to an overnight result,” it did show the world that “the UK will not stand by when one of its citizens is treated so unjustly”.