Jack Straw has come under fire from human rights groups after accepting a part-time job paid for by the government of Kazakhstan, a dictatorship which has been ruled by the same man since 1989, and where freedom of speech is heavily restricted.
According to the most recent Register of Members’ Interests, the former Home Secretary will earn £12,500 a year serving as an adviser to the Eurasian Council on Foreign Affairs (ECFA), which was set up using a generous grant from the Kazakhstan government.
The Council, described as “a forum for discussion of Central Asia’s relationship with the European Union”, had its first year of running costs paid for by Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Erlan Idrissov, the country’s Foreign Minister, is the Council’s honorary president.
Writing on the Council’s website, its founding director, former Kazakh diplomat Rauan Kenzhekhanuly, said its first task would be to create “a number of informative and engaging publications” about Kazakhstan’s economy and culture to present to “the venerable institutions and policymakers of the European Union”.
Mr Straw, who served as Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary under Tony Blair’s government, took up the post on 12 November last year and is expected to carry out around 40 hours of work in the role. But human rights groups questioned his involvement last night.
Allan Hogarth, Amnesty International UK’s head of policy and government affairs, said: “Kazakhstan has an atrocious record of torturing criminal suspects, banning or arresting peaceful protesters, and clamping down on journalists and bloggers, and Jack Straw’s role with the ECFA ought to reflect that.
“We’d like to see Mr Straw making it very clear that the Eurasian Council group will be vocal on the serious human rights issues afflicting Kazakhstan. Oil and gas-rich countries like Kazakhstan know full well that their wealth can often buy them positive public relations. The former Foreign Secretary mustn’t allow himself to become a PR mascot for President [Nursultan] Nazarbayev’s authoritarian government.”
David Mepham, the UK director of Human Rights Watch, added that the current situation in Kazakhstan was “very poor”. He said: “Freedom of assembly, speech and religion are all heavily restricted, workers’ rights protections are inadequate and have been further diminished by new legislation. Government critics – including a key opposition leader – have been imprisoned after unfair trials, and torture is commonplace in detention.”
The Iraq War: A timeline
The Iraq War: A timeline
1/16 11 September 2001
Terrorists belonging to al-Qaeda use hijacked aeroplanes to kill 2,996 people in attacks on the east coast of the US.
2/16 12 September 2001
Tony Blair promises George W Bush that the UK will support the US, whatever the President decides to do.
3/16 25 March 2002
Jack Straw, Foreign Secretary, warns Blair that invading Iraq would be legally dubious.
4/16 June 2002
Tony Blair asks defence officials to outline options for UK participation in military action against Iraq.
5/16 24 September 2002
The government publishes a dossier about the threat from Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. A foreword by Tony Blair states that Saddam Hussein’s “military planning allows for some of the WMD to be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them”. It is subsequently alleged that this dossier was “sexed up” for political reasons.
6/16 2 October 2002
Congress authorises President Bush to use military force against Iraq.
7/16 8 November 2002
UN Security Council passes resolution 1441, insisting that weapons inspectors be allowed back into Iraq and calling on the regime to give up its WMD or face the consequences.
8/16 18 July 2003
David Kelly, an expert in biological warfare, is found dead after being named as the source of quotations used by the BBC’s Andrew Gilligan to suggest that the dossier of September 2002 had been “sexed up”. Lord Hutton is appointed to chair a judicial inquiry into his death.
9/16 13 December 2003
Saddam Hussein is captured near Tikrit, after nine months in hiding.
10/16 2 March 2004
Bombings in Baghdad and Karbala kill nearly 200 people: the worst attacks since the fall of Saddam.
11/16 14 September 2005
Bombs in Baghdad kill 160 people and injure more than 500.
12/16 30 December 2005
Saddam Hussein is executed.
13/16 28 May 2009
The last British combat troops leave Iraq.
14/16 24 November 2009
The Chilcot inquiry holds its first public hearing.
15/16 2 February 2011
The Chilcot inquiry holds its final public hearing.
16/16 21 January 2015
Sir John Chilcot confirms that his report will not be published before the general election in May 2015.
Two Conservative politicians have also agreed to serve on the advisory board alongside Mr Straw. They are Peter Lilley, the party’s former Deputy Leader, and former Chancellor Lord Lamont.
Lord Straw is not the first New Labour politician to court controversy by working with the Kazakh government. Mr Blair has been employed as an adviser to President Nazarbayev, while Lord Mandelson has spoken at events organised by the Kazakh investment company Samruk-Kazyna.
Last summer, it emerged that Mr Blair had offered PR advice on how the president should best manage his image after the slaughter of unarmed civilians protesting against his regime.
In a leaked letter, Mr Blair told the Kazakh president that the deaths of 14 protesters “tragic though they were, should not obscure the enormous progress” his country had made. At the time, a spokesman for Mr Blair said he had merely been making the point that the massacre had to be “confronted” rather than ignored.
Mr Straw told The Independent he had not yet been to any of the group’s meetings and would not be involved until after standing down as an MP in May. “There are quite a few distinguished people from Europe on it, all of whom are concerned about some of the things that happen in Kazakhstan, but want to use what influence they have to try to secure change there. If I feel uncomfortable by what I find, I’ll leave,” he said.