HL Deb 12 March 1998 vol 587 cc306-8

3.25 p.m.

Lord Moynihan asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they intend to support the UN Human Rights Committee resolution drawing attention to China's record on human rights.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, European Union Foreign Ministers decided on 23rd February that neither the presidency nor member states should table or co-sponsor a draft resolution on China at this year's Commission on Human Rights. We support that decision and will continue to pursue our human rights concerns through dialogue and co-operation.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, do the Government understand the amazement and scepticism among human rights campaigners and politicians across the party spectra that next month at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva for the first time in nine years, since the censure motion which was introduced in 1989 after the Tiananmen Square massacre, the United Kingdom Government will not support a resolution to draw attention to China's record on human rights, particularly given the Government's much publicised commitment to a so-called ethical foreign policy and the importance they have attached to UN resolutions pertaining to Iraq? Why have the Government gone soft on human rights violations?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the Government have not gone soft on human rights violations. I hope that those individuals to whom the noble Lord has referred will not be amazed, as he suggests they are, when they hear the explanation as to why the Government have taken the course of action they have taken. The resolution on China has consistently not only failed to be adopted but has not even been voted on in seven out of the past eight years. The truth is that there has been a consistent failure of the resolution and very little has been done for human rights in China. So what we are trying to do is to secure the same objective—the objective of greater human rights in China—which I accept the noble Lord supports and I hope he accepts that Her Majesty's Government support it too, but through different means: through the resumption of dialogue. Since October 1997 the resumption of dialogue has delivered so much more in the furtherance of human rights in China. It has delivered a signature on the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; it has delivered an invitation to the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, Mary Robinson, to visit China; it has delivered an agreement to visit Tibet by the EU troika embassies; and today it has delivered an encouraging statement by the Chinese Foreign Minister about the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that dissidents in China continue to be arrested? Does she also agree that China still has a very long way to go to reassure the world about the freedom of comment of the media in that country, not least in the light of events that led to the BBC being closed out of China? Does she recognise that in view of the statements made by the former East Asia editor of The Times, Mr. Jonathan Mirskey, there is bound to be considerable suspicion about the relationship of friendship that exists between The Times newspaper and the government? In the light of that, will she answer two questions? First, has a date been found for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to go to China? Secondly, can she say whether the Government will consistently report back on the steps that China takes in response to the dialogue that she has told us now exists?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, of course I agree that there is still a very long way to go on questions of human rights in China. That is why the Government have considered it so important that we find alternative means rather than the ones which have been exhausted in the way that I described in my second answer. The noble Baroness asked specifically about the visit of Mrs. Mary Robinson to China. As yet a date has not been fixed. I hope that it will be fixed very soon. But Her Majesty's Government will also be reporting back, as we have done, on the exchanges with China. There have been eight top-level exchanges in the past few months with Chinese officials, senior government officials and Ministers over human rights incidents in China. That will continue.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, will the Minister accept that very many people will be very relieved indeed that the Government have moved away from the ham-fisted and deeply offensive approach of the previous government, together with the previous governor of Hong Kong, which resulted in breaking off relationships effectively with the People's Republic of China, to the considerable disadvantage of the inhabitants of Hong Kong? Will she further accept that many people are grateful that we have moved away from this rather old-fashioned imperial approach to foreign policy?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, for his remarks. In the Government's election manifesto we made it clear that we did not believe that human rights were necessarily encouraged by isolating countries, but by proper and open dialogue. That was the position that we freely stated before the election. The noble Lord is quite right. The exchanges of views are what is important, not only as regards Hong Kong but also the many millions of people in China who do not enjoy the human rights that we would wish to see.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, if the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, are correct, why has the human rights campaigner Wei Jingsheng praised the United Kingdom for its vociferous stand on the issue of human rights in China until this year? Why has he criticised the Foreign Secretary as a coward whose soft pedalling on human rights violations in China for the sake of commercial contracts he described as a large and wrong-headed gamble and whose ethical policy he described as no more than a political slogan?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, those remarks do not reflect the tenor or the substance of the meeting that took place between Mr. Wei and the Foreign Secretary yesterday morning. The facts of that meeting are that Mr. Wei recognised that the United Kingdom had a strong record on human rights in China. He thanked my right honourable friend for the efforts that have been made by Her Majesty's Government and in particular as regards his own release. I believe that that stands for itself.