Today’s House of Lords Debate on Britain’s Foreign Policy. Calls to use “smart power” to defend fundamental freedoms and to sustain rules based order.


Today’s Debate on Foreign Affairs
May 21st 2019

8.01 pm

Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB)

My Lords, I too greatly welcome this timely and well-judged report from the International Relations Select Committee, and particularly the recommendations to strengthen engagement with the Commonwealth, to invest more in our global diplomatic presence, to increase the deployment of our smart power assets such as the British Council and the BBC global news, and I wholeheartedly support the commitments to the multilateral rules-based system—to the UN, NATO, the WTO and other multilateral organisations, however imperfect they may be.

I also welcome the recommendation to increase engagement with regional powers across Africa, Asia and Latin America. That is particularly relevant in post-election India and Indonesia.

I have three points to make.

In a world where 84% of people hold religious beliefs, I would like to have seen a reference in the report to the rise in persecution, crimes against humanity and genocide. Upholding Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is directly linked to national security, displacement and migration, stability, prosperity and other strategic concerns.

As the BBC’s courageous correspondent, Lyse Doucet, has said, “If you don’t understand religion, you cannot understand the world”.

It is certainly an issue that is taken seriously in Washington, and that brings me to my second point.

The committee concluded that the UK’s “bedrock” relationship with the United States is under “disturbing pressure”.

Past Administrations in both countries have always been able to differ, as on occasion did Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, but it is central to this country’s interests that, notwithstanding our other relationships, we should sustain this bedrock relationship and entrench our more natural alliances such as the Five Eyes.

Fevered anti-Americanism is a huge error.

With this in mind, in the light of plans to allow Huawei’s investment in 5G and other Chinese investment in our national infrastructure, we should pay special attention to the remarks of Robert Spalding, the former senior director for strategy at the US National Security Council, who writing in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph said that to “miss the significance” of the US position would be a “grave misjudgment”.

That brings me to China. While we should seek ways to engage with China, I am concerned that the report’s summary paragraph underestimates the serious dangers posed by China’s increasingly aggressive behaviour on the world stage combined with its increasingly repressive behaviour towards its own people.

Consider, for instance, China’s influence on the UN and specifically the bodies and mechanisms focusing on the promotion and protection of human rights.

In its report “The Costs of International Advocacy”, Human Rights Watch says:

“China has worked consistently and often aggressively to silence criticism of its human rights record before UN bodies … the stakes of such interventions go beyond how China’s own human rights record is addressed at the UN and pose a longer-term challenge to the integrity of the system as a whole”.

Human Rights Watch cites cases of harassment and intimidation of UN officers, NGOs, and activists; efforts to weaken key human rights resolutions; and opposition to any discussion of China’s own human rights record.

In the Brookings Institution’s “China’s Long Game on Human Rights at the United Nations”, Ted Piccone warns that we are at,

“the start of a more wholesale campaign to reshape the rules and instruments of the international human rights system”.

More effort should be made to protect civil society organisations and activists, and to allow their safe participation at the UN.

More effort should be made to radically reform the Security Council veto—a point referred to earlier in the debate by the noble Lord, Lord Bates.

China’s threat to use the veto or to consider its use when looking at referrals to the International Criminal Court of countries like North Korea and Burma—I declare my interests as the co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea and as vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Burma—graphically illustrates how the rules-based international order, or at least the rule of law, can be so badly compromised.

All of this is happening when China’s own human rights situation is at a critical moment.

Under Xi Jinping, we have seen a rapid and significant deterioration in political rights, in freedom of religion or belief and in freedom of expression.

Those who defend these rights or question in any way the dominance of the party are subject to harassment, intimidation, arbitrary detention, torture and imprisonment.

Thousands of lawyers, religious adherents, journalists, academics, labour activists and students have been targeted in this way.

In the context of evolving UK-China relations, evidence given to the Select Committee highlights the need for the UK to remain committed to its own values and ideals.

Carrie Gracie, the former China editor at the BBC, told the committee that it was,

“very important to speak up for one’s values, assert where one’s red lines are and be firm about adhering to them, because one’s Chinese counterpart expects that”.

One glaring example is that of the mass detention of over 1 million people in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Normal life for Muslims has become impossible.

An excellent briefing by CSW describes what it calls the,

“already critical level of fear … Disappearances can happen at any time, to any person, without warning. In such a climate of fear, many Uyghur Muslims have stopped public and communal religious observance and have broken off contact with relatives overseas”.

Over Easter, I met a group of Uighurs.

British citizens are among the many families whose relatives have disappeared into these camps.

If the UK is to remain committed to its values, we must continue to speak up about the appalling situation in Xinjiang.

If China fails to respect the rights of Muslims to live peaceably within its own borders, it will place at risk its own internal harmony and, overseas, its belt and road programmes.

I turn finally to Hong Kong, and I declare an interest as a patron of Hong Kong Watch.

We must not forget the ongoing importance of the UK’s commitment to Hong Kong under the Sino-British joint declaration. Last month, I met two young graduates who were among the 100,000 people who in early May joined protests against proposals to amend the city’s extradition laws.

Hong Kong’s International Chamber of Commerce says that these will have an,

“adverse impact on Hong Kong as a place to live and work, and to continue growing as a major international business center”.

If we fail to act, we will be passive witnesses to the most grievous breach of the joint declaration since the handover. I hope that the Minister will make a clear statement on that in his remarks.

Not for the first time, the noble Lord, Lord Howell, has done us all a great service by giving us this opportunity to debate an important report. I join with others in expressing great admiration for his unstinting and sustained service to the House.