Former British ambassador 'horrified' by UK visa system


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The Independent Online

A former British ambassador to the UN said he is “horrified” by the UK's visa system after a Syrian delegate was obstructed from attending a Scottish conference.

Sir Jeremy Greenstock, who spent 18 months as ambassador to the UN before being appointed Tony Blair's special envoy to Iraq, said the UK's strict visa rules are deterring foreign investment and representation.

The president of the United Nations Association (UNA) of Syria had to cancel his trip to an international conference on A Middle East Free of Weapons of Mass Destruction, at the Scottish Parliament today, after he was refused a UK visa from the Syrian capital, according to Sir Jeremy.

He said: "I'm afraid that Professor George Jabour, president of UNA-Syria, was unable to reach us because he couldn't get a visa easily under the British system.

"Having left my government service I think I can freely say, without being sacked this time, that I am horrified by the way the British Government runs its visa system.

"We are a country with 30% of our GNP (gross national product) involved in global trade.

"If businessmen in a large number of countries around the world; if politicians, other visitors, members of civic society, cannot get a visa to the UK in their own capitals, they're not going to want to come to Britain.

"Therefore, I apologise remotely to George Jabour that he is not able to come because he was not prepared to go to Beirut through his own country and wait several days for a visa to come through."

Beirut lies 50 miles west of the Syrian capital Damascus in neighbouring Lebanon.

Sir Jeremy left his post as the UK's special representative for Iraq, which also shares a border with Syria, in 2004 after serving for less than a year.

Shortly after leaving the post he sent drafts of a planned book, provisionally titled The Cost of War, about his experiences as UN ambassador and Iraq representative, to the government.

However, it never emerged after then Foreign Secretary Jack Straw was said to have asked him not to publish the book, even though he had not read it.

Sir Jeremy has been chair of UNA-UK, a civil society organisation which acts as "a critical friend" of the United Nations, since 2011.

Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander hoped Mr Annan's visit to Damascus would bring "urgent, concrete results".

Mr Alexander said: "Condemnation from the UN Security Council of the appalling crimes perpetrated by the Syrian regime is welcome but insufficient given the slaughter.

"It was right for William Hague to travel to Moscow today to make clear the responsibility of the international community, including Russia to come together in a stronger and more effective diplomatic response."