Bishop of Derby calls for generous support for interpreters working in conflict zones

On 18th March 2015 the Bishop of Derby, Rt Rev Alastair Redfern, spoke in a debate on the protection of interpreters and translators working in conflict zones. His speech is below, along with the final section of the Minister’s response.

DerbyThe Lord Bishop of Derby: I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, for securing this debate and for introducing it so helpfully. It seems to me that interpreters are like priests; they are mediators and help connect cultures and communities. In this case, they helped campaigns unfold properly and as planned. It is a key role. As we have heard, especially from the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, it is a very risky role, on the front line in every sense, and we must be thankful for the courage and commitment of those who sign up for it.

Clearly, every war zone is complex, and therefore it is difficult to have a notion of one-size-fits-all in how we treat these people and their contribution. In this case, as in Iraq, but more powerfully now with the Taliban, the whole way of conducting war is through acts of terrorism picking out publicly identifiable people at particular moments, with violence that other people experience so that it gets into their DNA. These people on the front line are, tragically, tools for terrorist violence to fulfil the Taliban’s aim. Therefore, we have to think about them carefully because they are the Taliban’s prime armoury to make its impact in the war it is trying to fight.

I want to help us recall a number of key principles that are at stake, and then I shall offer a couple of observations. The first key principle was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Patten, and it is moral obligation. We cannot suddenly stop caring for people who have played a key role in the war effort and been part of the enterprise, or stop our relationship when it suits us. We have created the relationship, we have worked together, and we have a moral obligation—an honour, as the noble Lord, Lord Patten, said—to fulfil.

The second principle is about contractual arrangements. I do not know anything about salary or terms and conditions, but it seems to me that we are trying to deal with the matter after the conflict is over, in a sense, whereas we need to have a clearer sense of what people are signing up for, what the deal is, what the provision is and what the partnership is about. The Minister might like to comment on whether we have learnt anything from the process in Iraq, and now in Afghanistan, about how we set up these roles, the promises we make and the commitments we undertake—what I call the contractual arrangements.

The third principle that we need to remember, which the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, mentioned—and I have seen it in some of the literature that I have read—is the concern of the Afghan Government about a brain drain of people who are English-speaking and obviously able, with experience of relating to the West, being drawn out of the country. That is part of the equation; it is a difficult one. When one listens to the stories of the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, it is pretty clear that some people need safety, but we must listen to the principle of the indigenous Government trying to preserve their resources of people.

The next principle is that part of the political and military calculation is that, if you remove all the people who have been interpreters, the Taliban would start finding other people to be their targets, to hold up and brutalise in the public ways in which they conduct their warfare. So it is quite a complex calculation about each person, what they stand for, and who else might be drawn into the firing line.

Then there is another principle about the practice of other nations. From my reading around this subject, Australia and the US seem to be offering quite a good deal compared to the one that we seem to have on the table. We need some compatibility for the people who have undertaken this role for the various elements in the allied forces. That needs to be taken into account. Finally, as the noble Lord, Lord Patten, said, we have to be realistic. There is an immigration context that we have to wrestle with.

Having named all those principles, I shall make three final brief comments. First, I support the suggestion of a UN convention about the protection of interpreters, and I hope our Government will take a lead in helping to establish a clearer framework. Secondly, I urge the Government to err on the side of being generous. When people risk their lives, the least that we can do is to be generous with the benefit of the doubt when it is a tricky or difficult case. Finally, I suggest a review not just of cases but of the kind of contracts and deals that we offer people when we invite them to step into these roles so that they know at the beginning what the possibilities and safeguards are, and we do not have this unseemly row at the end when, in a sense, we should be honouring and supporting them.

Lord Astor of Hever (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence): […] The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby asked whether we have learnt anything from our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. The arrangements put in place for Afghanistan reflect lessons we learnt from Iraq. We will carry forward to future operations the lessons learnt about LECs and their safety. He also asked how we are avoiding a brain drain of the best and brightest Afghans. Our offer of in-country training and financial support is designed to encourage former LECs to stay in Afghanistan, and many have. It also builds skills for the country’s future. The right reverend Prelate asked whether the US and Australian schemes are more generous than ours, and the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, also asked about comparisons with the US programme. The US scheme, like ours, requires former local staff to complete 12 months’ service. The Australian scheme provides resettlement only to those who are able to provide a credible and substantive risk of harm. We consider the UK scheme to be generous in comparison to other nations’.

(via Parliament.uk)