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 160.

    We should trade wherever we can following international laws. That doesn't preclude us from highlighting human rights issues where they arise. It's just unfortunate that the only body that could bring proper international governance, i.e. the UN, is heavily populated by reps from despotic countries.

  • rate this

    Comment number 159.

    What a strange question?
    Trade v Human Rights.
    Are we supposed to think our Politicians are innocent?
    That our business leaders are innocent?
    There is money to be made.
    Just be thankful that you have the right to complain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 158.

    It would seem prudent for any of our Politicians to solve the problem of looking after our own citizens.
    Once they find a solution to that...then by all means lecture other countries.

  • rate this

    Comment number 157.

    Dave will probably have has much influence over Sri Lanka as Ed has over unite and falkirk.

  • rate this

    Comment number 156.

    We`ll do what every other nation does. Come out with some suitably mealy mouthed moralistic platitudes and then then ask them to please buy our guns and planes cos we need the money.

  • rate this

    Comment number 155.

    Cameron is the one who is getting one of the World's greatest violators of human rights, you know.....China, to build and run our nuclear power stations. It seems he doesn't mind what the leaders of a country do if he wants to carry out business with them. Talk about selling your soul.

  • rate this

    Comment number 154.

    No balance exists between trade and human rights. Profit wins every time. Periodically there are 'humanitarian interventions' - i.e. wars - in which a group of countries gang up on other countries accused of ignoring human rights. A brief examination shows that these 'interventions' too are about profit.

  • rate this

    Comment number 153.

    Old Chubby chops is probably out there putting his CV around looking for his next job.
    Bit like Blair he will be looking to secure a fortune in his enforced retirement from the British Political scene.

  • rate this

    Comment number 152.

    To have abstained and impose a boycott would be logical. To carry on trading while keeping quiet would be logical.
    To carry on trading and whinge at the same time is illogical and just highlights our own moral bankruptcy.
    Meanwhile, after so many years as a "Tiger" how come there has been so little trickle-down in Philippines? Could the WTO be one big Con too?

  • rate this

    Comment number 151.

    In total agreement, roll on May '15 and get this load if idiots out

    Dave loves to make people think he cares. If he cared that much he would be trying to stop massive energy price rises, increasing use of food banks and his rich mates avoiding/evading tax in this country before poking his toff nose into any other country's business !. He likes to think he is important in the world. He is deluded.

  • rate this

    Comment number 150.

    Dave loves to make people think he cares. If he cared that much he would be trying to stop massive energy price rises, increasing use of food banks and his rich mates avoiding/evading tax in this country before poking his toff nose into any other country's business !. He likes to think he is important in the world. He is deluded.

  • rate this

    Comment number 149.

    I would like to remind both Mr Cameron & Mr Hague that they have been funding terrorists in Syria who carry out beheadings, the massacre of women & children, car bombings & chemical attacks.


    Compassion? - nah ... it's because Mr Assad trades with Russia rather than Britain.

    Oh, and our US masters demanded compliance with Whitehouse policy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 148.

    Where to people in this country think all these cheap products come from?

    A dvd player for £14, 5 pairs of socks for £4. People here need to wake up because there products are being made in these country's that abuse there staff. Britain is becoming more like them everyday, unpaid overtime with 10k pay cut?, there's your economic solution, it happened to me

  • Comment number 147.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 146.

    What is he going to offer Sri Lanka? Jobs for its people in the way of primark type clothing factories in return for jobs for our people for Sri lankan defence contracts? No thank you.

    To retain credibility as a leader the PM should not be seen to engage with any regime that is tainted by abuses until they have been investigated, let alone start trade talks. It is quite distateful.

  • rate this

    Comment number 145.

    Torture, imprisonment without charge and civilian protection against attack is about all human rights should involve, any more than this causes other problems Social worker and police having to "look over their shoulders" in case they transgress some aspect of an overcomplicated law, so children and people cannot be protected in the way they should.

  • Comment number 144.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 143.

    Truth be told: Every country is guilty of some human rights abuses. For the sake of not arguing, I will not list those of UK, US, and even Canada. But foreign interference, topping so-called despotic governments - for the most part - has more to do with imperialism (read oil & other assets) than concern for the human rights of people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 142.

    Call me dave would sell his own mother in law to make sure that he has a bag full of non executive directorships ready and waiting for him when he becomes unemployed in May 2015

    He has no morals expect for looking after those that will look after him. A spineless failure - and I offer you the action he has taken re conservative created utility cartels as proof and point

  • rate this

    Comment number 141.

    instead of going there himself in order to strike an eventual business deal with the regime there and lower the country´s prestige in terms of respecting human rights globally as a modern and big country as the UK is, owes to do.


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