Comment: What Price Ethics When Foreign Trade Is at Stake?; by Welcoming the President of China to Britain, the Government Shows Its Stance on Human Rights Is a Sham, Says Chief Feature Writer Jason Beattie

By Beattie, Jason | The Birmingham Post (England), October 20, 1999 | Go to article overview

Comment: What Price Ethics When Foreign Trade Is at Stake?; by Welcoming the President of China to Britain, the Government Shows Its Stance on Human Rights Is a Sham, Says Chief Feature Writer Jason Beattie


Beattie, Jason, The Birmingham Post (England)


In a speech on July 17, 1997, our noble and upstanding Foreign Secretary Mr Robin Cook pledged his commitment to human rights.

"Britain will," he said, "support measures within the International Community to express our condemnation of those regimes which grotesquely violate human rights and repeatedly fail to respond to demands for an improvement in standards."

Amnesty International must have been popping the champagne corks. State police forces must have scurried to padlock their supplies of tear gas.

Dastardly Third World dictators would have donned their dark glasses, put their extravagant uniforms back in the wardrobe and ordered a doubling of the imperial guard.

The word was out: Britain had an ethical foreign policy.

No more cosying up with South American juntas; blind eyes would not be turned for the sake of a whopping arms deal.

In the future UK plc, a shining beacon of international goodness, would "refuse to supply equipment with which regimes deny the demands of their peoples for human rights," to quote Mr Cook again.

"We hold it as self-evident that everyone has the right to live without fear of violence sponsored or tolerated by the state, everyone has the right to freedom of thought and everyone has the right to freedom from torture or cruel and inhuman treatment and everyone has the right to take part in the government of his or her country through democratic procedures," he said.

These words must have been a comfort to the people of China.

According to no less an authority than the Foreign Office "there is general concern about the observance of human rights in China, including the widespread use of the death penalty, arbitrary detention, freedoms of expression and religion, and the situation in Tibet."

Amnesty International provides more details about these concerns: it claims torture and ill-treatment are endemic.

Police often humiliate and intimidate people in custody, "beat, kick and use electric shocks on detainees, hang them by the arms, shackle them in painful positions and deprive them of food and sleep. Last year hundreds, possibly thousands, of arrests were made and hundreds of activists and suspected opponents of the Government were sentenced, often without charge or trial, to imprisonment or 're-education through labour' in labour camps."

Mr Cook is aware of these conditions. After all, he gave a speech to Amnesty International in 1998 praising the organisation's work.

But even he, a man practised in the art of personal deception and doubletalk, must be struggling to balance his commitments to all things ethical with the practicalities of international relations.

Yesterday he had his chance to take the moral high ground when he formed the welcoming party for the first state visit by the President of China to Britain. As he lined up with Her Majesty the Queen, Mr Tony Blair and Mr Jack Straw to greet Mr Jiang Zemin he could have composed his little speech.

"How nice of you to come; now about the 241 people who remain imprisoned for the taking part in the Tiananmen Square demonstrations ten years ago," he could have said.

But of course he will say no such thing. Instead the self-righteous Mr Cook will mutter some fine words about how his Government's policy of "constructive argument" has played a major role in improving China's record of human rights since Mr Blair's visit last year. …

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Comment: What Price Ethics When Foreign Trade Is at Stake?; by Welcoming the President of China to Britain, the Government Shows Its Stance on Human Rights Is a Sham, Says Chief Feature Writer Jason Beattie
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