See no evil


By Siobhan Reardon

The arrival of two exotic visitors to Edinburgh Zoo at the end of last year sent the nation’s media into a spin.

For Scotland’s political and civic society, Tian Tian and Yang Guang unwittingly became a symbol of Scotland’s international economic policy and human rights.

By Siobhan Reardon

The arrival of two exotic visitors to Edinburgh Zoo at the end of last year sent the nation’s media into a spin.

For Scotland’s political and civic society, Tian Tian and Yang Guang unwittingly became a symbol of Scotland’s international economic policy and human rights.

Since then the ‘special relationship’ between Scotland and China has come under scrutiny, and many, including Amnesty, are asking: has the Scottish government traded away its stance on human rights in pursuit a relationship with the world’s second largest economy?

And, if not, how will our government ensure that human rights are placed at the forefront of discussions with any country with which we are seeking to develop trade links?  This is especially pertinent when talking about a nation which does not seem to believe in respecting the rights of its own people.  Some might say human rights in China are as rare as a sighting of a giant panda in the wild.

In November last year, just prior to the pandas’ arrival, the Chinese authorities persuaded their leading companies to step-up censorship of the internet and threatened the Chinese artist and activist, Ai Weiwei, for ‘illegal fundraising’.

This followed donors contributing £500,000 towards his £1.5m tax bill which the authorities had manufactured out of thin air.  Meanwhile Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo is currently serving an 11 year prison sentence for “inciting subversion of state power”.  His crime?  Involvement in the creation of a manifesto calling for political reform.

Torture and other ill-treatment of prisoners remains endemic in China.  Amnesty International has received reports of deaths in custody, some caused by torture, in a variety of state institutions, including prisons and police detention centres.  Statistics on death sentences and executions remained secret.  However, publicly available evidence suggests that China continues to use the death penalty extensively, with thousands being executed after unfair trials.

Chen Wei, an activist detained during a crackdown to prevent “Jasmine Revolution-inspired” demonstrations in China, was sentenced to nine years in prison on charges of “inciting subversion of state power”.  All this whilst thousands were queuing for a glimpse of China’s ‘gift’ to Scotland.

Reflecting its growing international economic and political influence, China has increasingly threatened economic and political retaliation against countries that criticised its human rights record.

Many countries seem reluctant to challenge China on its lack of progress on human rights, and bilateral channels, such as human rights dialogues, have proven largely ineffective – this according to the UK government’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office report on China.

Chinese authorities reacted angrily to the news that the Nobel Peace Prize had been awarded to long-time Chinese political activist Liu Xiaobo, indefinitely postponing bilateral trade talks with Norway. Foreign diplomats reported being pressured by China not to attend the award ceremony in Oslo.

The Scottish Government’s China Plan, a strategic document written to respond to and engage with China, as it emerged onto the global stage, was first published almost 6 years ago.  The strategy demonstrated how links with China would contribute to the key purpose of the Scottish government, namely to “focus the Government and public services on creating a more successful country, with opportunities for all of Scotland to flourish, through increasing sustainable economic growth; and the need to place Scotland as a responsible nation and partner on the world stage.”

This is the crux of the issue – “the need to place Scotland as a responsible nation … on the world stage”.  In order to be able to call itself a “responsible nation” it is imperative that Scotland respects and upholds the rights of individuals everywhere.

Amnesty has repeatedly stated that if international leaders do not speak up publicly regarding human rights issues, it could give the impression that they are happy to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses when trade deals are on the table.

For Scotland to be considered a responsible global citizen and to legitimise the commitment that “Scotland stands for human rights”; a commitment which 89 out of the 129 MSPs elected at the last election made – including the First Minister – it has to illustrate that the treatment of a country’s citizens is just as important as our GDP or trade balance sheet.

In 2009, Tom McCabe, then an MSP and convener of the Cross Party Group on China, stressed the importance of approaching the discussion of human rights issues in China sensitively.  According to a refreshed version of the China Plan, McCabe accepted that China’s human rights position was “not ideal”, although he considered that “people who view Scotland from outside do not necessarily think that our position is ideal”.

His view was that whilst “the subject of human rights in China should certainly be discussed … how we discuss it, where we discuss it and the degree of humility with which we discuss it are also extremely important … it is vital that we do not lecture people and that we are aware … of China’s journey over the past 30 years or so.”

In response to the many questions asked of Alex Salmond’s administration about Scotland’s relationship with China, and any perceived duty to raise concerns about human rights, he stated that Scotland should promote social progress in China through economic co-operation rather than “jump up and down from a distance” about human rights.

In an interview with BBC Radio Scotland, Mr Salmond said he frequently raises the issue of human rights through the ideas of 18th century economist Adam Smith.

He said: “Adam Smith’s work as part of the Enlightenment acknowledges that economic progress and social progress must go hand in hand.

“It’s very important and at every meeting I raise this because it is a fantastic way into an issue and a good way to raise it, which on the one hand helps the dialogue and on the other hand doesn’t cause needless offence.”

Many believe a country like Scotland raising issues such as human rights abuses with a nation such as China is fruitless, simply a PR exercise, designed to placate NGOs and opposition politicians.  However, building links – economic, cultural, social – enables a sharing of experiences, scrutiny, and political pressure to be applied through formal as well as informal channels.  And whilst this does not often bring about immediate results, it presents opportunities.  It also serves another very important purpose, that of highlighting a commitment to respecting human rights in our own country.  If politicians keep banging on about human rights abroad, they have a commitment to respect them in their own native lands.

And China is not the only foreign power with a dubious human rights record with whom Scotland is looking to forge links.

At the time of writing, Alex Salmond is in Abu Dhabi signing a trade agreement within the UAE state, and John Swinney is meeting Russia’s ambassador in London to discuss economic ambitions and opportunities for collaboration.

Whilst the arrival of Tian Tian and Yang Guang at Edinburgh Zoo provided a focal point for raising concerns regarding the links, or lack of, between trade and human rights this is an issue which needs to underpin all of Scotland’s international relations – cultural, social and economic.  It is not enough to say that as a country, we believe in human rights – as the First Minister and many of the current MSPs have done – then turn a blind eye when it suits.

Human rights need to be at the heart of all Scotland’s domestic and international relations.  These are, after all, the rights of individuals, enabling everyone to productively contribute to a society that is fair and just.  Just ask Adam Smith.

First published in Product magazine: