Viewpoints: UK trade v human rights

David Cameron

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Prime Minister David Cameron is under fire for his decision not to join a boycott of the Commonwealth summit in Sri Lanka. He is also attempting to build bridges with China after he angered its leaders last year by meeting the Dalai Lama.

Is he getting the balance right between promoting British trade and other interests abroad and human rights?

Dr Stephen Davies, education director at the Institute for Economic Affairs

"Everyone wants to see individual liberty expanded in all parts of the world - the question is how to do this most effectively.

"The key is to expand 'social power', the ability of people to act, and to reduce 'political power', the capacity of elites to use force and the power of government against people to limit their freedom of action, speech and thought.

Professor Stephen Davies Stephen Davies is a former lecturer in economic history at Manchester Metropolitan University

"More trade is crucial for this. It undermines the power of despots, their ability to control populations, while increasing ordinary people's resources, their connections with each other and their ability to organise and co-operate.

"The spread of the mobile phone through trade and commerce has done more to undermine authoritarian government than any amount of action by more liberal states.

"While we should all strongly support action by civil society organisations such as Amnesty it is not clear what governments should do.

"The main role of governments is to protect the rights of their own citizens and to provide a stable system of law for them.

"Attempts to make greater trade dependent upon changes in policy will simply lessen the kind of transformations brought about by trade and private action, which in the longer run will do more to increase liberty and undermine tyranny."

Allan Hogarth, head of policy and government affairs at Amnesty International UK

"In all its foreign relations it's absolutely vital that the UK government raises human rights issues with as much enthusiasm as it does trade ones. Presently, we're far from convinced the government is getting this balance right.

Allan Hogarth Allan Hogarth recently completed an MSc from Birkbeck university in global politics

"So it's vitally important that human rights are not downplayed when the prime minister visits China next month. While we understand that No 10 is keen to develop trade with China, this must not be done by turning a blind eye to China's absolutely dreadful human rights record.

"We'd like to see Mr Cameron and other senior members of government publicly raising human rights concerns with senior Chinese officials.

"One case they should raise is that of Cao Shunli, a prominent activist who's been detained for two months under a charge of 'picking quarrels and making trouble'. She's one of numerous prisoners of conscience in China.

"Meanwhile, we'd like to see the prime minister meeting Chinese human rights activists during the visit. We'd be happy to personally brief Mr Cameron or his officials prior to the visit.

"Announcing the trip during his Lord Mayor's Banquet speech, Mr Cameron said he wants Britain to show an 'entrepreneurial, buccaneering spirit, where people who take risks to make money are celebrated and admired.

"However, historically speaking a buccaneer is a pirate acting with total contempt for the law. We need to make sure that countries like China aren't themselves acting lawlessly."

Richard Ottoway, Tory chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee
Richard Ottoway Richard Ottoway is a former member of the influential Intelligence and Security Committee

"It is not a perfect world so there will always be conflict between our interests and our values.

"Boycotting countries just to emphasise our values will achieve very little and could be counter-productive.

By far the most effective way is to argue our case in private, as we do in a number of countries around the world."

William A Callahan, professor of International Relations, London School of Economics

"China is well-known for having a pragmatic approach to international relations.

"Since Deng Xiaoping launched the policy of economic reform and opening up to the outside world in 1979, Beijing has quite effectively separated economic issues from political ones in its international strategy. One could say that David Cameron is taking a Deng-ist approach to the UK's relations with China because his government now sees the People's Republic of China as an economic opportunity rather than as a human rights problem.

William A Callahan William A Callahan's most recent book is China Dreams: 20 Visions of the Future

"But this would be a mistake.

"Recently, Beijing has retooled its diplomatic strategy to focus on political issues as well as economic development. Since he became China's new leader last year, Xi Jinping has stressed the role of values in Chinese diplomacy.

"Rather than talking about the rise of China in terms of geo-economic power, Xi declared that his 'China Dream' is the 'rejuvenation of the Chinese nation' as a moral force in global affairs.

"The Chinese government now promotes a combination of socialist values (equality, stability and justice) and Confucian values (order, harmony and family) not just at home but on the world stage. Beijing's 'values diplomacy' is specifically designed to provide an alternative to the liberal values of freedom, human rights and the rule of law.

"Since the UK is known in China as a human rights superpower, it would be a shame if Cameron missed the opportunity to join in the values debate that is already raging in the People's Republic of China.

"If you want the Chinese people to take you seriously, it is best to speak honestly about differences."

Ann Clwyd, a Labour member of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee

"It is not a trade issue, but the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting is a very important meeting. We put forward a strong argument (in committee) why the UK should not be going there because of human rights concerns, the past failure of the Sri Lankan government to investigate some of the many allegations about that country.

Ann Clwyd Ann Clwyd was Tony Blair's special envoy on human rights in the run-up to the Iraq war

"I have met the president of Sri Lanka myself and I have put to him the case for allowing a proper investigation into what went on in the civil war. There were atrocities on both sides but they are still refusing to allow a UN investigation. By going to a conference of this kind, it is giving the wrong signal about where the UK is coming from.

"World leaders should be allowed to raise these issues. We will see in a few days whether Cameron and Hague have done this in Sri Lanka.

"On trade and human rights, we have constantly debated this in our committee.

"We understand there must be trade but at the same time we ask that human rights is up at the top of the agenda, not just mentioned in a few sentences as a throwaway.

"It must be on the agenda and it must be discussed."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    The worlds worst regimes are our best friends as long as they invest in us. Should put Pecunia non olet somewhere on the union jack.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Cameron should only berate others when the UK is sorted out.

    The UK is far from sorted out. We're in a huge mess on every issue from A-Z, get back here PDQ before Clegg trips over Larry the cat.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Yes, that was the obvious conclusion I reached, as well. But placing yourself in the position to weight human rights against trade is a deliberate appeal to high class status. Making grand statements about the value of "little people", relative the "the trade of the nation", this is the sport of dukes, princes and kings.

    BBC journos love all that, and delight in aping the aristocratic form.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Sri lanka is the only country in last 40 years given Citizenship to 500000 tamils in 22 million population country. USA still debating about hispanics citizenship. Proud British HR legacy

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    MP's with scruples, not a chance most of them would have their grannies melted down if there was profit in it.
    Cameron has crawled back to the chinese because they put him on the naughty step just for meeting a peaceful man.
    One minute he's talking of human rights and the other he's proposing selling arms to Syrian Rebels.
    I'm afraid that human rights always come a poor second to filthy lucre.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    1. How many people killed by in name of british monarch in 19th 20th century ?
    2 Do you think they loot any thing ?
    3 Tamils are brought to sri lanka under british rule ?
    4 How many Elephants and other animals are killed by English men ?
    5 do you think at that time there is religious conversion ?
    Well lets talk about human rights ?
    Are we Asians/Africans really recovered from this ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    If you actually think there can be a balance between human rights and trade then you've lost the moral right to make this assessment. Human rights are inalienable and shouldn't depend on whether you think you can make a fast buck.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Which Human Right any PM or politician which permit our GCHQ and NSA the recording of private e-mail and telephone conversation have not right to to use the word Human Right freedom of speck and privacy are the corner stone of the Human Right act.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    I'm afraid it is rather like Pick 'n Mix. What gives one the best value for money. And let's face it the baddies are usually free-loaders in small countries with high poverty and cheap labour and of course International Aid enhancing the coffers of the globe-trotting heads of State and their hundreds of extended fam ily members.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    It's not just human rights. It's general pay, conditions and the social wage for employees, which have a direct bearing on our own.

    Never has it been more pressing on people to organise globally than now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Money Money Money !!! ,

    "Cameron's Independent trading" Beijing , Bombay, Witney,

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    First he should stop using UK tax payers money to buy goods from these places. How is it that we buy our army uniforms from China? Ridiculous when we can and should make them ourselves. Even if it cost more per uniform we would save more than that by not paying unemployment, housing, free health etc etc etc and by getting tax paid on the wages and profits!

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    To not attend would also be snubbing the rest of the Commonwealth. In our position we have no alternative but to participate and to make our voice heard. Anything else would be an abdication of responsibility and a lack of leadership.
    Others are free to make their points in their own way.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Like a lot of things it is about "balance".
    Now, there are some people on here (and will comment as they are perfectly able to) that we should not ever compromise, etc. However, that is an extreme view, but will be quite vocal, whereas those who care little for rights issues will probably not comment, again the extreme.
    The vast majority will sit in the middle, as will the Government.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    #5 Sadly persecution of gays is the norm in most nations. It was only a few years back we allowed homosexuals to join the army. Its still a divisive issue in the Church of England (of which the Queen is the head) The UK is hardly perfect

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Yes, he needs to be there to receive the media coverage for the points he, rightly, intends to put across.
    He must go further still - how can we condone a Commonwealth where, in 41 out of 53 countries, homosexuality is illegal. If these - and other human rights issues - are not adopted to internationally accepted standards, the Country should be removed from the Commonwealth.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Not sure if he's getting the balance right abroad. But definitely not at home... far too quick to sell people's rights down the river in the name of 'the economy' (banksters) or 'the war on terror' (gangsters) or 'the special relationship' (yanksters).

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    "UK trade v human rights"? I'm all right, Jack.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    "Is he (Cameron) getting the balance right between promoting British trade and other interests abroad and human rights?"

    Yes, I think so. There is no point in not turning up.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    A boycott will acheive nothing. It is vital to engage with other leaders and discuss concerns. Lecturing from afar can be counter productive and only lessen our influence in these countries.


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