China: Human Rights

– in the House of Lords at 2:57 pm on 6th February 2006.

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Photo of Lord Alton of Liverpool Lord Alton of Liverpool Crossbench 2:57 pm, 6th February 2006

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What account is taken of human rights violations and limits imposed on individual liberties when determining bilateral relations with China.

Photo of Lord Triesman Lord Triesman Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

My Lords, the United Kingdom Government have serious concerns about a wide range of human rights issues in China. We pursue a policy of critical engagement with the Chinese Government that aims to improve the human rights situation on the ground in China, develop our bilateral relationship and encourage China to play a constructive and responsible role in international affairs.

Photo of Lord Alton of Liverpool Lord Alton of Liverpool Crossbench

My Lords, following the arrest of the blind Chinese human rights activist, Cheng Guangcheng, for protesting against the compulsory sterilisation or abortion of 7,000 women in one county of the Shandong province over a four-month period and following the continued imprisonment or torture of political and religious dissenters in China, how do Her Majesty's Government view Google's self-serving and supine decision to allow the Chinese Government to censor its search engine, expunging all references to the one-child policy, human rights, democracy and events such as the annexation of Tibet and the brutal reaction of Chinese forces in Tiananmen Square?

Photo of Lord Triesman Lord Triesman Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

My Lords, it is really for Google to answer questions about the commercial decisions that it takes to co-operate with the Chinese Government on restrictions to the Internet. The United Kingdom Government, however, believe that freedom of information is essential to the development of a modern, sustainable and stable society. I have argued that with the Chinese Government on a number of occasions in respect of the World Service and access to the Internet, and I believe it is right to continue to do so.

Photo of Baroness Rawlings Baroness Rawlings Shadow Minister, Foreign Affairs, Shadow Minister, International Development

My Lords, what progress have Her Majesty's Government made in persuading the Chinese Government to announce a timetable for the ratification and implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the ICCPR, which is signed but not yet ratified?

Photo of Lord Triesman Lord Triesman Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

My Lords, on 12 and 13 December last year the United Kingdom hosted an EU-China human rights dialogue seminar on the ratification of that treaty. The discussion focused on the three problematic articles: the right to a fair trial, arbitrary arrest/detention and the serious crimes that are punishable by death. The event gave us the opportunity to argue the case. We will continue to argue the case and to press for a ratification date. We believe that the Chinese have an obligation to come to a rapid conclusion on the matter.

Photo of Lord Avebury Lord Avebury Spokesperson in the Lords (With Special Responsibility for Africa), Foreign & Commonwealth Affairs, Spokesperson in the Lords (Civil Liberties), Home Affairs

My Lords, considering that the EU-China dialogue on human rights has been going on for 10 years—the UK-China dialogue for even longer—does the Minister agree that the time has come for a comprehensive review of those processes to identify what methodologies are effective in persuading the Chinese to improve their human rights record and where other and more effective methods might be tried?

Bearing in mind what the Minister said about persuading China to be constructive in regard to its international obligations, could the human rights dialogues be widened so that China is brought to a more comprehensive awareness of its responsibilities with regard to human rights in African countries where it is now playing an important role?

Photo of Lord Triesman Lord Triesman Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

My Lords, I ponder that question with some care. This is a very powerful world power; a country that is now an economic giant and will be still more so; a country where persuasion and argument are the best methods that we have available; and where from time to time we see progress being made. That is true across the range of human rights. We will make progress week by week, month by month, including on African issues in which I am personally engaged. If it is frustratingly slow, I look to noble Lords to point out the switch that can be pulled that will change the fundamental trajectory.

Photo of Lord Soley Lord Soley Labour

My Lords, does the Minister take comfort from a visit that was made to this country by a number of senior Chinese government figures about three or four years ago? They asked me whether I was optimistic or pessimistic for the future of China. I said that I was optimistic for the economy, hopeful for the rule of law but worried about the ability to change governments and deal with human rights without difficulty. Their answer to me was commendably honest. They said, "You might be worried, but not as worried as we are".

As the Minister says, the reality is that China is moving, sometimes in the right direction, sometimes—as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, indicated—very much in the wrong direction . It is our job to try to encourage China down the right route while bringing to its attention the failings that are still manifest.

Photo of Lord Triesman Lord Triesman Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

My Lords, my noble friend is right: that is the way in which we have to work. On balance there have been some small indications of the kind of progress that the House would welcome. They are not systematically sustained, but none the less there have been some indications. The work has to be continued by people who believe that there is a worthwhile objective at the end. Everybody could just give up, but that is not the point.

Photo of Lord Hylton Lord Hylton Crossbench

My Lords, does the Minister agree that economic giants have a duty to behave themselves just as well as anybody else? Can he say what effect persuasion has so far had in preventing abhorrent practices such as forced labour for pregnant women and forced abortions? Is there any improvement on the persecution of a wide range of religious groups in China?

Photo of Lord Triesman Lord Triesman Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord: it is right to say that major economic powers have obligations. It is one of the characteristics of being a major power that a country should take the full burden of international responsibilities for good practice and improving practice.

In the areas mentioned by the noble Lord, I fear that there has been all too little agreement. That is what I was saying. We will continue to argue such issues as religious freedom, treatment of women, treatment of prisoners and standards in the judiciary. The list is quite long.

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Labour

My Lords, are any human rights organisations that are independent of the Chinese authorities tolerated in China?

Photo of Lord Triesman Lord Triesman Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

My Lords, my noble friend used the word "tolerated". We are aware of some human rights organisations, but the extent to which they are tolerated is a moot point. They flourish, sometimes temporarily. Often, they have flourished so long as they could keep an Internet site going, and that has sometimes been repressed. We have done all that we can to give them the best environment in Internet terms and as regards arguments about access to media. "Tolerated" is not the right word, but such organisations do exist.

Photo of Lord Elton Lord Elton Conservative

My Lords, the Chinese are in a good position to ignore our moral indignation to the full extent that they wish, but they would not be so free if we expressed opinions in unanimity with a large number of other countries. What collective pressure on human rights is being brought to bear on the Chinese Government?

Photo of Lord Triesman Lord Triesman Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

My Lords, everybody who looks at the decision-taking mechanisms in, for example, the United Nations Security Council will be aware that there is seldom unanimity. There is no great commitment even at the General Assembly for everybody to move in the same direction and in the ways that we believe would be right. We are, however, seeing progress in several areas—Africa, incidentally, is one of them. Forgive me for repeating a previous answer, but we have to work continuously with some patience—we do not have much option but to work with patience—to align other countries behind the propositions that I have put to your Lordships' House.