Delivering laws to the lawless: An interview with Richard Thompson OBE

In a varied career within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) spanning almost 20 years, Richard Thompson OBE has spent much of his overseas experience in what he would describe as “failed states” where the rule of law was, at best, precarious. Representing the UK at the highest levels during some historic global events, Richard has learnt a “salutary lesson on the limits of Western power and Western influence”.

After attending the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, the Army sponsored Richard’s studies of Law at the University of Exeter. He expresses this degree “undoubtedly trains your mind extremely well” and is invaluable in “teaching you how to analyse a problem and come up with an evidence-based and logical conclusion for a solution”. His knowledge of employment legislation and the criminal law became useful within his role as Chief Constable of the Civil Nuclear Constabulary from 2007 to 2012. It is, however, his understanding of the principles of human rights legislation which have proven useful within his variety of overseas postings, including the Balkans and Iraq.

The primary focus for those in Government service during the 1990s was “the consequences of the demise of the Soviet Union”. The political stability and predictability which stemmed from the Cold War were thrown into chaos as the Soviet hammer and sickle flag lowered over the Kremlin for the last time. The first instance in which this was evident was the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. An attempt to gain more control over the Middle Eastern oil supply which “demonstrated the extent to which the world order that had dominated post-1945 had really come to an end”.

He also cites other key historic events such as the disintegration of the former Republic of Yugoslavia and the collapse of the Congo to highlight the international community’s struggle with how they should respond to states which were becoming “increasingly fragile and eventually disintegrated”.

When Croatia and Slovenia seceded from Yugoslavia in 1991, the Serb-dominated government attempted to exert their authority over the remaining areas of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. Quickly, it became clear “the local population were suffering enormous hardship” and the international community were confronted by a situation which was deemed to be “a humanitarian crisis”.

Emphasising the importance of his understanding of human rights law within these situations, Richard explains humanitarian law became the driving rationale for the international community and, in particular, the UK to intervene in the internal affairs of Yugoslavia: “understanding the limits of what it is that you can do and why you can do it, set in the context of both public international law and human rights obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights is particularly important”.

At the time, Richard was involved in operations which brought criminals to justice for international war crimes. He questions the subjectivity of his work, asking: “What’s the justification for going to a foreign country and deciding ‘you are a bad person, therefore we are going to arrest you and try you for international war crimes’? Who says it’s a war crime or an act of genocide?”. These are determined by Western liberal ideals, rather than the social norms practised by the local population.

Delivering security to a lawless environment was one of the main challenges within Richard’s career. Operating in an domain like Iraq, he was “dealing with an implacable foe who thinks nothing of beheading its prisoners”. Richard emphasises the importance of possessing a strong moral compass when working under extreme circumstance, where the normal checks and balances are absent and the legal framework we take for granted at home simply doesn’t exist.

Drawing a comparison between what Richard would label as these “failed states” and the social contract which underpins our Western liberal democracies is virtually impossible. Operating in these environments in an attempt to rebuild these countries requires an immediate delivery of both safety and security alongside the basic amenities which we would take for granted: “in other words, when I flick a switch, the light has got to work. When I turn a tap, fresh water has to come out. When I take my children to school, no-one is going to kidnap them. If I open my shop, no-one is going to bomb me”.

The ability to deliver security, law, and order to these countries is of the utmost importance to avoid losing “both credibility and, crucially, legitimacy in the eyes of the local people”. Without those fundamental elements, a vacuum is formed which allows space for those operating for personal gain or to promote a certain political view. Speaking from personal experience, Richard says these individuals or groups will stop at nothing to secure power and economic advantage.

He tells me: “The story of people like myself… is a series of overseas expeditions where we have had the most brutal demonstration of the limits of our power and the limits of our ability to project our values onto those countries”.

While discussing his opinion of the British invasion in Iraq, another example of international intervention, Richard highlights his unique perspective upon the situation. Though he understands why the British and US went to war in 2003, “the abject failure from [his] perspective was to underestimate the complexity of what was going to be required once Saddam Hussein had been removed”. After the successful removal of al-Qaeda and the Taliban from Afghanistan, he believes “there was a degree of hubris about what our military power could achieve in Iraq”.

Previously holding experience in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Sierra Leone, Richard arrived in Iraq in early 2004 with the knowledge of what was required to create a secure, safe environment. This, however, was not in place. Strongly believing they were set up for strategic failure, Richard remarks: “regrettably, events, as they unfolded, vindicated exactly what it was that I’d been saying”.

By 2005, they had lost control. Al-Qaeda had become firmly implanted in the country. After elections had been boycotted by the Sunni population and the Shia did not decide upon a leader, the vacuum Richard had previously warned against opened up.

Enquiring as to whether his overseas postings have changed his view of the Western world he calls home, Richard answers in two parts. Firstly, he appreciates the “comfortable, safe, and secure circumstances” in which we live. A degree of compliance is achieved through the “social contract that exists between us as citizens, the state, and our fellow citizens”.

Secondly, he makes it clear that the values which form the basis of our Western liberal democracies are not easily transferrable to other societies: “the idea that you can transplant and transfer these principles to societies who have never enjoyed the benefits of what we’ve had and expect them to embrace them overnight is never going to happen quickly”. He also notes the relatively short nature of our electoral cycles, remarking they are “ill-suited to the sort of campaigns that require long-term, sustained, and potentially very expensive engagement”.

Richard argues this concept is based upon a hubristic assumption: “you can’t suddenly bring a country that is so fundamentally different and transform it in a short space of time into something which is familiar and recognisable to us but which has taken hundreds of years to develop and evolve”.


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Dolly Carter

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December 2021
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