David Torrance wrote a somewhat strange article in The Herald today about Alex Salmond’s visit to China. He correctly describes the approach of the Scottish Government as being pragmatic and focused on developing trade and economic links. For some reason he feels this contrasts with the brave line of the UK Government on human rights as evidenced by a quote from Foreign Office Minister Hugo Swire. Perhaps David Torrance was in North Korea when the Boris and Osborne show was in Beijing and he therefore missed the bumbling Etonian charm offensive with its references to being fashionably late to the party. Not to mention Conservative Party efforts to damage the international protection of human rights by campaigning to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights.
The reality is that most Western Governments take a pragmatic line with China. One would like them to be more outspoken on human rights violations. Or at least to include some human rights conditions, for example regarding forced prison labour or working conditions, into agreements on trade. But change in terms of respect for human rights, the rule of law and eventual democratisation will come from activists inside China and not from external advocacy.
And China is more concerned by the growing voices of protest and dissent within the country than they are about external criticism. In the run up to the recent review of human rights in China under the Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council there was an intensification of repression against human rights defenders as detailed by Front Line Defenders:
It is estimated that thus far over 150 activists have been detained, many of whom have been involved in a campaign calling for greater transparency within the ranks of the CCP and for constitutional government. Ironically their anti-corruption stance was echoed in a series of speeches by President Xi Jinping in late 2012 and early 2013, when he highlighted graft as a major problem within the Party and promised to go after both “tigers and flies” (high and low level officials). It would appear that the ‘tigers and flies’ these courageous activists were calling to account were the wrong sort of ‘tigers and flies’ to be held accountable.
The steady stream of arrests has ensured a certain sense of ‘arrest-fatigue’ amongst the international community, lowering the political costs for the Chinese government of continuing to detain human rights defenders. And continue to detain them it will, as Xi Jinping seeks to assert his authority in advance of the Third Plenum of the 18th CCP Congress next month, where he will hope to firmly entrench his position at the top of the Party.
Also next month China will seek a place on the UN Human Rights Council. It has prepared for the election to this UN body by harassing and detaining human rights defenders who had sought greater involvement in China’s preparation for the UPR, a key mechanism of that very body…
…That China feels it can treat this process with such contempt – and in the six months before its UPR review, engage in a targeted crackdown against human rights defenders – is indicative of the international community’s failure to hold China to account for its human rights abuses. As the voices of governments around the world stay silent on these issues, it makes it easier for the Chinese Government to silence voices within China, knowing that if faces little criticism for doing so.
There is a bit of a mocking tone in David Torrance’s article, as though he can’t quite come to terms with the fact that Salmond can travel to China and be more effective on his pragmatic economic agenda than the UK Government. But it is true that an independent Scotland will need to have a coherent policy with regard to human rights. Interestingly the two governments which have been strongest in their support of the protection of human rights defenders internationally are Norway and Ireland. The UK, by contrast, struggles to speak with any consistency or credibility on human rights because of its support for repressive regimes in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, because of its involvement in illegal wars and related human rights violations, and because of its extensive involvement in surveillance and espionage.
An independent Scotland will start with considerable international good will. The achievement of self-determination through a peaceful, democratic, political process will be a positive example to which many others will look. It will open up opportunities for Scotland to play a constructive role in terms of the promotion of human rights, democracy and the peaceful resolution of conflict. Even with those advantages we might struggle to have an impact on human rights in China, but at the very least we will have greater possibilities to support the courageous human rights defenders who are speaking out for change in spite of the risks they face. It would be good if our First Minister was meeting with some of them whilst he is in the country this week.