Beijing Speech – Cultual Diversity and Human Rights – October 2010


Cultural Diversity and Human Rights

Paper for the Beijing 2010 Conference on Human Rights.

Professor Lord Alton of Liverpool (David Alton)

When China’s previous distinguished Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Madam Fu Ying, returned to Beijing earlier this year, she said that she would never forget a British boy called Isaac.

Distressed by the news of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which was the 19th deadliest earthquake of all time and which claimed the lives of 69,227 Chinese people, and left 300,000 people injured, Isaac wanted to take some action of his own to help.

So, young Isaac asked his friends and neighbours to sponsor him for every mile he walked from his home in Wales to London, raising money and drawing attention to the plight of the victims as he went: “An ambassador”, said Madam Fu Ying, “will never forget that.”

Isaac’s story brings to mind another story the story of a boy who is walking along a beach where thousands of dying star fish have been left high and dry by the retreating tide. An incredulous adult asks the boy, who is throwing the starfish, one by one, back into the water, why he is bothering: “there are simply too many; it won’t make any difference” says the adult. “But it will make a difference to that one” retorts the boy.

Isaac’s actions were like the actions of the boy on the beach.

Our individual actions, and the personal decisions we take, demonstrate whether we are truly committed to a Universalist view of humanity, to the alleviation of human suffering, and to the upholding of human dignity. Ghandi rightly said we should “be the change you wish to see.” Acts of common humanity are at the heart of what it is to be human; they are what bind us together.

There is a foot-note to Isaac’s story which is also worth mentioning: Isaac came from Wales.

China is a huge country of 1.5 billion people; Britain is much smaller, with 61 million people; Wales, Isaac’s country, is smaller still, with just 3 million people.

Yet, Wales, despite being a part of the United Kingdom has its own capital, Cardiff, and its people are fiercely independent, incredibly proud of their history and have their own language officially protected since 1993 by the Welsh language Act, spoken by one in five, and by the Government of Wales Act, 1998, which provides for all official documents and web sites to be produced in Welsh and English – as well as providing for a devolved Welsh Assembly in which, like the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly, legislative and cultural issues may be determined.

In Northern Ireland, after three decades of terrorism and the loss of 3,000 lives, devolution and power-sharing has been the fruit of the peace process; it was the long overdue political response by the major parties to Northern Ireland’s long-running violence They had finally concluded that there would be no military solution.

In a British Province, where 60% believe themselves to be British and 40% believe themselves to be Irish, any proposal which treated one group as the victors and the other as the vanquished would have been doomed to fail: power sharing and devolution has recognised cultural diversity and human rights.

Happily, the situation in other parts of the United Kingdom has never been allowed to escalate into such shocking violence such as that which occurred in Northern Ireland. This should not disguise the fact that in Scotland, for instance, there are political organisations which campaign for outright independence. If, in the 1990s, the British Government had failed to address the increasing level of Scottish and Welsh alienation, we might well have seen an ugly outcome.

Instead, in both Wales and Scotland, the devolution of political power genuine autonomy – has muted the more vocal demands of separatists demanding independence, whilst properly and sensitively responding to a genuine desire for subsidiarity (the principle that decisions should always be taken at the lowest possible level) and recognition of human diversity.

Devolved structures of government can enhance the stability, unity, and cohesion of a State and should not be feared by the central authorities but devolution and power sharing is only a small part of what is needed.

Many modern nations are a rich tapestry of peoples who have different racial origins, different religious faiths, different languages and different cultures, and they do not live in easily delineated geographical territories but cheek by jowl, street by street, in the same cities and towns. How, in these situations, do we create a respectful and tolerant environment which accepts difference and which does not seek to impose a rigid or narrow uniformity?

Britain has dozens of ethnic minorities living within its shores and, in that respect it shares the same challenge as China, with its 56 ethnic minorities and diverse regional languages, in upholding cultural diversity and the human rights of minorities while simultaneously promoting community cohesion, shared values, and stability.

Any government will rightly place national unity, security and stability as three of its principle objectives. A wise government will always seek to assimilate and integrate all its citizens regardless of an individual’s race, colour, creed, orientation, gender, class or ability. A wise government will appreciate that if any group becomes deeply disaffected from the rest of that society will in due course become a threat to the cohesion of the society.

Historically, Britain is an island of settlers and has a long history of integrating new arrivals.

The Celts, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Norse and Normans arrived before the 11th century and by the seventeenth century saw the arrival of the first wave of refugees Huguenots fleeing persecution in France. In 1655, Oliver Cromwell permitted Sephardim Jews, descended from Jews who had been expelled from Spain and Portugal, to settle in Britain.

By the eighteenth century the city of Liverpool had a black community and the oldest Chinese community in Europe was established in Liverpool by Chinese seamen arriving in the nineteenth century. It was also a century when vast numbers of Irish people, fleeing famine and starvation following the potato blight, arrived in Britain.

As China and many other nations have experienced, perhaps particularly the United States of America, our demographic profiles have been radically altered by history, economic adversity, persecution, civil war, famine, natural disasters, and sometimes by the human impulse to make a fresh start in some other place.

In Britain after the Second World War substantial migration from Africa, the Caribbean and South Asia all the legacy of the British Empire preceded the more recent arrival of immigrants from many parts of central and Eastern Europe.

Between 1991 and 2001 the number of people who came from one of the new ethnic groups, other than White, grew by 53%.

Professor Steven Vertovec, of Oxford University, in “Ethnic and Racial Studies” coined the phrase “super diversity” to characterise the composition of today’s British population and to explore the implications and challenges posed by such diversity.

For Vertovec “super diversity” is “a notion intended to underline a level and kind of complexity surpassing anything the country has previously experienced. Such a condition is distinguished by a dynamic interplay of variables among an increased number of new, small and scattered, multiple-origin, transnationally connected, socio-economically differentiated and legally stratified immigrants who have arrived over the last decade.”

Dealing with “super diversity” – especially in the context of disaffected radical Islamists is likely to be the most challenging question facing western democracies in the decades to come but radical Islam poses a challenge way beyond the U.S. and Europe.

China will have to deal with its Uighur population and in Africa it will have to wrestle with the dangers posed to Chinese nationals working in countries like Sudan, whose government was willing to launch a war which killed two million people as it attempted to impose Islamic Sharia Law.

India, with the biggest Muslim population in the world, faces the challenges left in the aftermath of the bombings in Mumbai; Islamic countries such as Pakistan face a major identity crisis as they decide whether or not they believe in secular government; while countries like Iran and Afghanistan with active cells of Al Qaeda and the Taliban and clerics who wish to impose a theocracy have to decide whether the Middle Ages or the twenty first century are where they wish to be.

Let me illustrate the scale of the problem for a country like Iran.

Consider the implications for women and minorities such as homosexuals, and for the lawyers who try to uphold the human rights of their clients, in the context of a case like that of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani an Iranian woman accused of adultery and who was initially sentenced to be stoned to death .

Sakineh had already been flogged with 99 lashes before the sentence of stoning was imposed. This was later withdrawn after international outrage but it is unclear whether she will be executed by other means. Her lawyer has now fled the country.

Since then Maryam Ghorbanzadeh a 25 year old pregnant woman -and Azhar Bakri aged 19 have also been sentenced to death by stoning on similar charges of adultery.

Or, consider the case of an Iranian teenager who faced deportation from Britain, where his asylum case was rejected. Mehdi Kazemi is aged 19 and is homosexual. His boyfriend was executed in Iran two years ago hanged because he was gay: one of 4000 gays executed in Iran since 1979. Mehdi, who came to Britain as a student, would almost certainly have faced capital punishment if he had been forced to return. The British courts have ruled that he must be permitted to remain in the United Kingdom while such laws remain on Iran’s Statute Books.

Iran also tolerates no deviation from permitted religious belief.

I recently met Bahai representatives in London who described to me how seven of their leaders were arrested two years ago and have been held without charge in Iranian jails ever since. The country’s Prosecutor General, Ayatollah Dorri-Jajafabadi, said that it is the declared intention of the Iranian authorities to “confront and destroy” the leadership of the country’s estimated 300,000 Bahai believers. Christians and Zoroastrians have similarly suffered.

A world in which divergent religious beliefs, social mores, or gender leads to persecution and rank discrimination will never be a peaceful world.

For myself, despite its manifest failings, give me Britain’s hobbled democracy any day if the alternative is a society in which adulterers are flogged, gays are executed, women are stoned for not being veiled, churches are burned, so-called apostates are killed and non-Muslims are forced to convert or be treated as ‘dhimmis’ or second-class citizens.

From my own visits to countries such as Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon, Sudan, and Egypt and from reports I have complied in the past I have heard or seen first hand what it is to live as a minority in a theocratic society which tolerates no difference or diversity, and where human rights are impaired as a consequence.

I think of a case from Pakistan, earlier this year, where the law enforcement agencies appeared crippled in the face of an army of angry and hostile lawyers who were publicly threatening to burn anyone representing a Christian family in Court. Or the case reported in February last of a senior Wahhabi Saudi cleric who ordered the killing of Muslims who permit gender interaction.

I’d rather a society in which we can speak freely and practice our faith freely, within the rule of law, and so long as this in turn does not threaten others.

I also know that is a view held by many Muslims. The challenge will be whether we can build a bridge to Muslims of that disposition.

These are the countless good and peaceable Muslims, many of whom in countries like Iraq – have been on the receiving end of suicide bombs and endless cycles of violence, and who have no desire to bring forced conversions, wage Jihad or impose Sharia law; and who do not regard all non-Muslims as second class citizens.

If we fail to disentangle the things and people we oppose from those we embrace, we risk inflaming hatred of all Muslims.

Islamaphobia, Christianophobia and anti-Semitism all have their roots in irrational hatred.

Like all religions the religion of Islam is multi-faceted, and there are a great many followers of Islam who choose an interpretation that is peaceful, spiritual, generous, hospitable, law-abiding and gracious. We need to understand the difference between Islam and Islamisation; the difference between those who cherish their religious beliefs and those who wish to wage war and seek to impose their beliefs on everyone else.

In 1927, Maulana Mawdudi said:

Islam wishes to destroy all states and governments anywhere on the face of the earth, which are opposed to the ideology and programme of Islam regardless of the country or the nation which rules it.

The author of A Brief History of Islamism, Ghaffar Hussain, himself a Muslim, concludes with these words:

Islamists remain frozen in an age of warring empires and cosmic wars. They desperately cling to their binary view of the world despite it not being supported by the reality around them. Dreams of an imperial future in which divinely-inspired warriors conquer and rule the world bring contentment to the hearts of some, but instil terror in the minds of others.

Dealing with this, the greatest challenge to cultural diversity and human rights in our world today, will require us to look differently at Islam, not just at the threat which we feel it might pose, but at what things we might hold in common. Among those common principles of humanity might be a respect for life, a culture of solidarity, a culture of tolerance and truthfulness and equal rights. Governing all of this is

the golden rule of mutuality, reciprocity, what you wish for yourself, you wish for your brother.

Rigamortis sets in when we become brain dead. Every religion needs to demonstrate that modernity is not incompatible with religion; that faith must cling to reason; that it can coexist with other beliefs and no belief; and that it can play its part in building a worthwhile and vibrant society.

In the United States, and in many other countries, religious organisations have been the engines which have driven social progress and made incredible health, educational, and civic provision. Countries which seek to asphyxiate spiritual and religious energy lose a great deal. Certainly, unregulated capitalism, with no ethical framework and without the mortal framework which religious belief can provide, can be selfish, greedy and corrupt.

A shared approach of believers and non believers alike should begin with an emphasis on our duties towards one another – not simply on our rights.

Britain’s Chief Rabbi, and leader of our country’s Orthodox Jews, Lord Sacks, suggests that every citizens needs to consider his or her duties and responsibilities to the community in which they live and not simply expect rights and freedoms to be conferred.

He tells a story in which he describes three different scenarios, each involving the arrival of one hundred strangers who have been wandering around the countryside looking for a place to stay.


The first one hundred are greeted warmly. Their host gives them empty rooms and tells them to stay as long as they wish. Everything is done for them but they remain as guests in someone else’s home.

The second one hundred wanderers have plenty of money and they are welcomed at a hotel.

Theirs is a purely contractual relationship with the hotel’s owner; but so long as they don’t disturb the other guests they are told they can stay for as long as they wish.

The third one hundred are welcomed by the mayor and the civic leaders. There is no house or hotel available but the community does offer some land, building materials and help with the labouring. Their offer is: “Let us do this together.”


These three parables offer three different ways of thinking about society and identity. The first two scenarios lead to ghettoes and isolation, the third to integration and a genuine exchange of gifts.

And says Jonathan Sacks, “Society is the home we build together.” He argues that:

“Social contract creates a state; social covenant creates a society. Social contract is about power and how it is to be handled within a political framework. Social covenant is about how people live together despite their differences. Social contract is about government. Social covenant is about coexistence.”

A few years ago, I was travelling in Israel and the Palestinian West Bank. As we left the town of Jericho we saw a lorry over turn on the road ahead of us. The lorry’s load of fruit was scattered over the road and the Palestinian driver, who had fallen asleep, was badly injured and thrown out of his cab. Ironically, it was on this road that Jesus chose to set his story of the Good Samaritan who stopped to help the Jewish traveller who had been set upon by thieves.

From our air conditioned coach stepped forth a young German born Catholic doctor. With her was a nurse, a Protestant, from Lancashire. I don’t suppose that mattered much to the driver, a Muslim, who desperately needed help. A little later some Jewish Israeli paramedics arrived and lifted the man to safety and took him away to hospital.

Muslim, Jewish, Christian: humanity is at its best when reaching out to others. When we lose sight of the human being made in the image of God and substitute hatred or enmity, we succumb to evil, we diminish ourselves and we make the world a little crazier. By contrast, endless cycles of revenge are no way to live. When you go on taking an eye for an eye the whole world ends up blind.

Sure foundations for our home together will not be found in a rights based culture and the exaggerated emphasis that has been placed on personal autonomy; it will be found in the language of shared duties, mutual respect and common humanity.

The language of rights, choice and autonomy with scant regard to duties or obligations is inadequate when confronted with the challenges that face us in the twenty first-century. We need a much stronger defence.

Within our western narrative we can call in aid the ancients: Aristotle, Plato, and Cicero. We have the three pillars of Hellenistic democratic ideals, Roman law, and Judaeo Christian belief. Eastern civilisation can call on its extraordinary history and the wisdom of great philosophers such as Confucius.

Confucius understood that before rights must come virtue: “To be able under all circumstances to practice five things constitutes perfect virtue; these five things are gravity, generosity of soul, sincerity, earnestness and kindness.”

An understanding of who we are, and from what rock we were hewn, is central to our ability to live harmoniously and respectfully alongside one another. We also need some degree of humility.

I want to conclude with a story which reminds me how mistaken it is to seek to impose yourself, your culture, or your beliefs on others, or to arrogantly pursue policies based on self interest and domination.

Exactly one hundred and fifty years ago, on 18 October 1860, at the command of Lord Elgin, Britain’s High Commissioner in China, one of the most shameful episodes of British history occurred. It was an outrage which has blighted the relationship of our two countries ever since and is a graphic example of cultural imperialism and the misuse of power and force.

It took 3,500 British and French troops to torch China’s Old Summer Palace in Beijingthe Gardens of Perfect Brightness. It was a vindictive and philistine act which aimed to humiliate China’s Qing Dynasty and assert the hegemony of the British and French occupying forces. Its consequences still reverberate today, and it is another of those unforgotten and unhealed chapters of history.

The burning of the palace was the culmination of the second opium war, waged by the British in China, a war whose lessons have contemporary resonance. The French writer, Victor Hugo, in his

Expedition de Chine, described the pillaging and burning of the palace as akin to two robbers,

“breaking into a museum, devastating, looting and burning, leaving laughing hand-in-hand with their bags full of treasures; one of the robbers is called France and the other Britain”.

The pretext which Britain gave in pursuing the Second Opium Waror Arrow Warof 1856 to 1860 was the killing of a French missionary, Father August Chapdelaine.

In reality, the British Empire and the Second French Empire pitted themselves against the Qing Dynasty with the objective of legalising the opium trade and expanding the trade in cooliesa derogatory slang expression used to describe the virtual slave labour and exploitation to which Chinese labourers were subjected.

The trade in coolies was the forebear of the human trafficking which continues to this day.

Along with the opium trade and the trade in people, Britain was determined to open up all China to British merchants. The opium war concluded with the British, French and Russians demanding and getting a permanent diplomatic presence in Beijing.

China was forced to pay reparations of 8 million taels to Britain and France. Britain acquired the territory of Kowloon, adjacent to Hong Kong, a territory taken at the end of the first opium war. The opium trade was made legal, and Christians were given the right to evangelisea sad and discrediting linkage of religious freedom to the worst excesses of imperialism.

Most scandalous of all was the trade in opium itself. Vast numbers of Chinese had become addicted to opium and Britain, instead of helping to eradicate the addiction, became the supplier. The Chinese Government said:

“Opium has harm. Opium is a poison, undermining our good customs and morality”.

Instead of upholding China’s policy, however, Britain decided to play the part of pusher and profiteerthe equivalent of today’s urban heroin and cocaine pushers, not only government-sponsored and

sanctioned but backed by force of arms. In the House of Commons, the young William Ewart Gladstone rebuked the British Government. He said,

“a war more unjust in its origin, a war more calculated to cover this country with permanent disgrace, I do not know”.

By the conclusion of the Second Opium War, and the burning of the Old Summer Palace, Britain had achieved its strategic objectives but its reputation was left in the ashes and charred remains of the Gardens of Perfect Brightness.

As we mark the 150th anniversary of these events and catch a glimpse of drug addiction, human trafficking, theft, arson, violence and humiliation, we might pause to consider how these unhealed and unforgotten events continue to play into the times in which we live now.

As China is exhorted to take its place in the world and consider its development role in Africa, or how it should be a major broker in countries such as Burma perhaps pressing for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi or in North Korea especially in stopping the repatriation of women to forced labour camps – we should have regard to how China has traditionally perceived foreign powers, how it has been treated itself and how it now sees its own interests. Because of its own experiences, China will have an intrinsic concern about interfering with the sovereignty of other nations and this is not a call for the use of force or arms rather, it is a call for China to be a powerful force for good; an enlightened force for humanity; a foreign and human rights policy based on the Confucian principle of the cultivation of virtue.

By contrast, the actions of Britain and France, one hundred and fifty years ago, not only leave a shameful stain on British history but have understandably made China wary of seeming to exert influence beyond its own national boundaries.

But in the context of today’s global relationships facilitated by travel, the internet, and common threats such as global warming, nuclear proliferation and terrorism great nations must demonstrate that governments and their leaders can be virtuous and altruistic in pursuing policies based on the promotion of the common good. This, after all, was the objective set out by the General Assembly of the United Nations in December 1948 in the Declaration of Human Rights, the preamble to which demanded:

“recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,

Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,”

And the first three articles of which make clear that human rights are not subject to territoriality :

Article 1.

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 2.

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

Article 3.

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

These, and twenty seven articles which follow, remain the basis for our discourse on human rights today.

I began with the story of a Welsh boy, Isaac. It was a story told by China’s Ambassador to Britain. It illustrates the way in which an ordinary citizen can heal history through a single act, perhaps proving the truth of what a sage once said, that: “the man who saves a single life, saves the world”.

Respect for cultural diversity, the upholding of the rights of minorities and their beliefs, the embrace of duties and shared responsibilities, a reverence for the rule of law, and the promotion of community cohesion, stability, security and good governance, should be our shared objectives.

Ultimately, when we imitate Isaac, when heart reaches out to heart, in the pursuit of common humanity, our world will have become an enlightened and harmonious place in which to live.