Northern Ireland – China relations and human rights

China’s persecution of ‘barefoot lawyer’ activist Chen Gaungcheng continues to cast a long, dark shadow across the two-day visit of US Scretary of State Hillary Clinton. The BBC reports a senior US diplomat:

The United States believes that no state can legitimately deny the universal rights that belong to every human being – or punish those who exercise them. A China that protects the rights of all its citizens will be a stronger, more prosperous partner for the United States.

I agree that there should be no conflict between good business and good human rights observance, between a healthy trade relationship and a healthy diplomatic one. Today, in the News Letter, I have been reflecting on Northern Ireland’s relationship with China, and why our Ministers must do more than pay lip service to human rights abuses there. It’s not online, so am reproducing below:

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Northern Ireland has been building links with China for many years. However, our relationship with China must be one of which all our citizens can be proud.

This means going beyond the Northern Ireland Executive’s current strategy of simply promoting trade and educational links by pushing human rights much further up the agenda.

The Executive recently hosted a visit to Northern Ireland by a delegation from the Chinese Government led by Liu Yandong of the Communist Party politburo. The First and Deputy First Minister are planning a return visit to China later this year.

Amnesty International is calling on our Ministers to use this opportunity to raise serious concerns about human rights abuses in China – including the country’s continuing crackdown on freedom of expression, freedom of religious worship and use of the death penalty. China executes more people than the rest of the world put together.

Northern Ireland must stand tall when it comes to challenging human right abuses. Our history should teach us that pain not progress comes from injustice, torture and killing. We should be speaking out in solidarity with Chinese dissident and Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, now serving an eleven year jail sentence for calling for political reform.

With our strong history in the arts and culture, we should be speaking out in solidarity with Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who was detained last year and is now fighting charges that seem to have appeared out of thin air.

We should also be speaking out in solidarity with Chen Gaungcheng, a legal activist from Shandong who has served more than four years in jail, currently in the news after escaping from illegal house arrest. Chen’s crime? He tried to bring a lawsuit against authorities accused of forcing thousands of women to have abortions or undergo sterilisation.

Amnesty welcomes the Northern Ireland Executive’s commitment to building our relationship with China. However, if it is unwilling to pay more than lip service to these abuses of human rights, then we should hang our heads in shame.

Sir John Stanley, a Conservative member of the UK’s Foreign Affairs Committee recently noted:

“The uncomfortable reality for Ministers — I accept that it is uncomfortable for them — is that they have a hard choice to make in relation to China and other countries around the world. Do they stand up straight and firm on human rights, or do they basically say that they will go through the motions on human rights and give first priority to our country’s commercial interests?”

It should not be too difficult for the Northern Ireland’s Ministers to broach human rights issues as China is a signatory to the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Ministers from other countries manage to do so regularly.

We have a right to know: are our First and deputy First Minister willing to stand up straight and firm on human rights or just go through the motions?

I am the Northern Ireland Programme Director of Amnesty International UK and an occasional human rights blogger at Amnesty Blogs: Belfast & Beyond.

I’m on Twitter at @PatrickCorrigan