Malcolm Rifkind: We need a global response to Beijing’s belligerence, inhumanity and mendacity

13 Jan

Sir Malcolm Rifkind was Foreign Secretary from 1995 until 1997 and was Minister of State in the Foreign Office from 1983-86. He was responsible for the final stage of negotiations with the Chinese Government over the return of Hong Kong to China.

A week today, assuming the constitutional democratic process takes its proper course, Joe Biden will be inaugurated as President of the United States.

Immediately, he will face two challenges.

The first is that he is not Donald Trump. He will want to distance himself from everything his predecessor represents: belligerence, intolerance, rage, incompetence, incoherence and unilateralism.

He will want to prove himself to be the multilateralist, internationalist, engagement-minded president – and democrat – that we all hope for.

In some ways, he will make us all heave a sigh of relief.

At the same time, he should reject one of the mistakes of the Obama administration in which he served. Against the tyrants of the world, what counts is strength. Rhetoric, while welcome, must be accompanied by action if it is to mean anything.

And now more than any time there’s a need to stand up to Xi Jinping’s brutal regime in China.

Tonight, a major new report will be launched by the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, titled The Darkness Deepens.

More than any other report in recent time, it provides the full catalogue of horrors of what Xi Jinping’s regime is up to, against its own people and against the free world.

Other reports have detailed individually the atrocities against the Uyghurs, the abuses in Tibet, the persecution of Christians, the suppression of dissent and the silencing of liberties in Hong Kong – but few have combined them all. This report weaves this house of horrors together.

It brings together the dismantling of freedom in Hong Kong, the atrocities in Tibet, the assault on freedom of religion and expression throughout China and the persecution of the Uyghurs, in a way that has seldom been combined before.

And it offers ways forward.

Crucially, the report makes clear, it is not anti-China – it is critical of the Chinese Communist Party regime.

The starting point is engagement and dialogue. But the issue is not should we talk, but what should we talk about and how. And an unavoidable topic of conversation should be human rights.

And then the next question is should we trade? And for me the answer is: yes, but on what terms?

Not on terms of bullying and intimidation. Not on ”wolf-warrior diplomacy”. And definitely not by surrendering our values.

And so we need a global response to Beijing’s belligerence, inhumanity and mendacity.

The British barrister Geoffrey Nice, who prosecuted Slobodan Milošević, now chairs an inquiry into atrocities facing the Uyghurs, and previously led an independent tribunal that concluded that forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience in China continues, and constitutes a crime against humanity. In that tribunal’s final judgement, published early last year, the eminent panel of lawyers and experts advise that anyone interacting with the Chinese regime should do so in the knowledge that they are “interacting with a criminal state”. The free world must do more to counter that criminality.

That should mean, as the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission proposes, Britain leading the establishment of an international coalition of democracies to coordinate a global response to the human rights crisis in China, bringing together not only the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and our European allies, but countries such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and others in Asia and beyond.

The British government should do more to help build support for the establishment of a United Nations mechanism to monitor human rights in China, as called for last summer by at least 50 serving UN independent experts and several former UN special rapporteurs, including Zeid Raad al-Hussain, the distinguished former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

It is time to look at imposing targeted Magnitsky sanctions against key officials in the Chinese and Hong Kong regimes for serious human rights violations and breaches of international treaties.

We should be looking to diversify supply chains and reduce strategic dependence on China, and put our values and national security first when looking at Chinese investment in critical infrastructure and other sectors.

And while growing claims of genocide against the Uyghurs are not proven, there can be little doubt that what the Chinese regime is doing to the people in Xinjiang reaches the level of mass atrocities and can be considered to be attempted cultural genocide.

Last month an ingenious amendment to the Trade Bill that would prohibit trade deals with states found guilty of genocide was passed in the House of Lords by a majority of 287 to 181. What is striking is that it was introduced and supported by a cross-party group of peers that include Michael Forsyth, the former Conservative Cabinet minister, Lord Blencathra, former Conservative Chief Whip, Eric Pickles, former Conservative Party Chairman, along with Helena Kennedy, Labour peer and leading human rights barrister, Lord Alton, cross-bencher and former Liberal chief whip, the Labour and Liberal Democrat peers, bishops and numerous others across the House of Lords including David Hope, the former Supreme Court Justice. This is no collection of rebels, but some of the country’s most distinguished experts in their field, and therefore should be taken seriously.

The Government’s position has always been that it is for the courts, not politicians, to determine genocide, and I agree. But the problem is that our international judicial mechanisms for genocide determination are found wanting, due to the referral requirements and veto power of some countries, and the result all too often is government inaction in the face of mass atrocities. This amendment creates a vehicle, allowing for the High Court of England and Wales to make a determination and, in any given situation that it does so, the government is duty-bound to abandon any trade deals it may have or hope for with the regimes responsible. As Nice says, “no well-ordered state would want to be trading with a genocidal state.”

It is worth noting that this amendment does not apply retrospectively, and it does not violate multilateral trade commitments, only bilateral agreements. It doesn’t preclude further action at an international level – indeed it strengthens the case for it. And – given my own concern that the charge of genocide should only ever be made when there is indisputable evidence of mass killing and proof of intent – it would, according to Nice, “discourage, and probably significantly reduce, casual and often instrumental assertions that genocide is being committed.”

So it may or may not apply to China. But it would signal Britain’s intent – to the Chinese regime and every other brutal dictatorship – that we will not stand by while grave atrocities are committed. For these reasons I hope Members of Parliament will support it when it comes to the House of Commons.

The Conservative Party Human Rights Commission’s report on Xi Jinping’s human rights record follows its previous one in 2016, titled The Darkest Moment. As the Commission acknowledges, the title four and a half years ago was with hindsight a little premature, for the darkness has clearly deepened – hence the title of the new report. It makes sad reading, but it should be read in every foreign ministry in the world. If only the Chinese people could themselves read it too, for then they would realise the degree to which millions of their fellow citizens are persecuted and imprisoned by a cruel regime. That cruelty requires a robust, co-ordinated and effective response by the free world, and I hope Britain – together with the new US administration and our other allies, will lead that effort.

Luke de Pulford: The UK has failed to stand up to China – and Raab must ensure that it does

7 Jan

Luke de Pulford is Coordinator of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China and sits on the Conservative party Human Rights Commission.

I like Dominic Raab – really, I do. In 18 months as Foreign Secretary he has delivered more legacy defining policies than most. A sanctions regime to punish human rights abusers. A generous immigration scheme for Hong Kongers. There’s a lot to admire, especially when you consider these policies had to be smashed through the famously resistant blob that is the Foreign Office.

Which is why I can’t understand what he seems to be doing now – especially given his background. According to Government insiders, Raab is blocking efforts to give UK courts the power to hear cases of genocide – something the Uyghur people desperately need and deserve.

Let me back up a bit. In December the House of Lords debated an all-party amendment which would stop the UK offering cushy trade deals to genocidal states. Though the amendment doesn’t mention any country, China’s anti-Uyghur atrocities were clearly the motivation. Truth be told, if this amendment were to become law, it won’t have much impact on trade at all. As the Government keeps saying, the UK has “no plans to commence free trade negotiations with China”. So a law saying we can’t offer Myanmar or China special tariffs isn’t much skin off the Government’s nose.

The big deal about this amendment is that it would allow UK courts to rule on whether or not a state had committed genocide. Until now this has been a privilege reserved to international courts, which take a ridiculously long time and which can’t act at all if someone brandishes their Security Council veto. Turkeys don’t tend to vote for Christmas, so the likelihood of China allowing themselves to be tried for their anti-Uyghur atrocities is…putting it generously…remote.

This obviously isn’t good enough. Aside from failing Uyghurs, it’s a far cry from the treaty we signed, forged in the shadow of the Holocaust: to “prevent and punish” a repeat of those horrors. Given that the UK refuses to use the word genocide, unless there has been a formal court ruling – and consequently refuses to engage with its duties under the Genocide Convention – this is a problem that needs solving. Actually, that’s too kind. It’s a completely inoperable, wrong-headed and immoral policy which cynics might speculate was designed to achieve precisely the inertia it has brought about.

The House of Lords agreed and passed the amendment with a whacking majority of 126, including a considerable Tory rebellion of former chief whips like David Maclean and former cabinet ministers like Lord Forsyth, Eric Pickles and others. “Lords say ‘No Deal’ to Genocide Countries” as a tabloid had it.

This clearly spooked the Government which is rallying hard in the Commons to kill off the proposal, deploying the usual excuses about how this isn’t the right bill, and isn’t the right time – the kind of parliamentary tactics which only work on those who haven’t been around long enough to have heard them many times before.

From Daniel Finkelstein’s piece yesterday in The Times you’d think nothing was wrong with the Government’s approach. Everything’s fine! Except our treaty promises to Hong Kong lie in tatters, no meaningful steps have been taken to help Uyghurs by engaging with our obligations under the Genocide Convention, no sanctions have been imposed on Xi Jinping’s enforcers after at least a year of asking (it took a week for Belarus), no economic sanctions have been imposed upon China, no commitment has been made to reduce Britain’s strategic dependency on China, no commitment to close Confucius Institutes, nothing about Tibet, no action on state-sponsored organ trafficking, nothing about Inner Mongolia, and so on and so on.

The weird thing is that the Government always knew it was going to be in for a rough time with this one. But ministers haven’t come to the table. Normally, when presented with trouble from the back benches, they negotiate. Sometimes they even take the proposal on themselves, which allows them to control and adapt it. In this case the government was having none of it. They whipped against heavily in the Lords, and are expected to do the same in the Lower House.

Why? Well, the obstruction is said to be Raab himself – apparently worried this will upset the UN, or something. Even weirder: Liz Truss is apparently in favour of the idea and it’s her bill. So here we have a Foreign Secretary – who really has been courageous on human rights – moving to block an amendment that would give Uyghurs their day in court on a bill that isn’t even his responsibility.

I hope you’re scratching your head, because those of us involved in the campaign can’t make sense of it. The most likely explanation is that the current Foreign Secretary used to be a Foreign Office lawyer – the standard bearers for the “computer says no” division of Whitehall. And, as I’ve hinted above and written about before, it is long-standing UK policy that “the question of whether or not genocide has occurred is a matter for the international judicial system”.

In policy terms, this is positively prehistoric – Douglas-Home was the first Foreign Secretary to deploy a version of the line in 1971. Perhaps old habits die hard, and overturning this deeply embedded piece of Foreign Office obfuscation is proving too much for a man whose fledgling career was weened on it.

Whatever the reason, it’s all a bit out of character. The UN genocide system is broken and needs a shot in the arm from a country willing to stand and be counted. It’s hard to imagine a foreign secretary better suited to doing it. If only he would.

Switching to more unitary authorities and directly elected mayors must be achieved by consent

8 Sep

“More elected mayors and fewer councils to break Labour’s red wall strongholds,” declared the Sunday Times over the weekend. It is already Government policy to encourage more areas to become unitary authorities and for more directly elected mayors to be installed. But this report suggests that a White Paper on devolution, to be published next month, will give these changes more impetus. It says:

Dozens more elected mayors and the abolition of many councils are being planned under a shake-up of local government due to be unveiled next month.

“Ministers want to devolve more power to areas that agree to new elected mayors, who they argue are more accountable and better at boosting local economies. Conservatives have also proved more successful in winning mayoralties in “red wall” areas than they have in winning Labour-controlled councils. However, a fight looms over plans to abolish significant numbers of district councils, many of them Tory-controlled, as part of plans for a slimmed-down local government system.

“Downing Street denied that they wanted to abolish two thirds of authorities by replacing district councils with unitary authorities, and insisted change would happen only with local consent. However, ministers do want to move towards more single-tier council areas, which the County Councils Network estimates would save £3 billion a year.

“District councils oppose the move, saying it would create unwieldy mega-authorities responsible for more than a million people each, far larger than local government units in other countries. A cap of about 600,000 people in any unitary authority is being considered as one way of avoiding this.”

Ben Houchen, the Conservative mayor of Tees Valley, “is seen as the prototype for winning Tory control of local government in the north and Midlands.”

It will be interesting to see what the devolution White Paper comes up with. But if the principle is maintained of local consent, it is hard to see how the change could be as dramatic as the tone of the Sunday Times piece suggests.

A quote from a Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government spokesman in the Daily Telegraph yesterday sought to offer calm:

“We want to devolve and decentralise to give more power to local communities, providing opportunities for all areas to enjoy devolution.

“But there will be no blanket abolishment of district councils and no top-down restructuring of local government. The devolution White Paper, which will be published this autumn, will set out our detailed plans and we continue to work closely with local areas to establish solutions to local government reform.”

The Telegraph report added some welcome news:

“Local communities could also seek to scrap modern municipal area names to give people a better sense of the history of where they live under the plans.

Another Government insider said: “We want to extend devolution to the whole country so that all areas benefit from this. It should not just be the big urban areas, it should be shires too, working closely with local areas to establish solutions to local government reform.”

Campaigners who have been urging the Government to reinstate historic county names welcomed the news. Pam Moorhouse, the British Counties campaign, said: “Traditional county names were taken off us by Edward Heath in 1974 so it is about time they came back because millions want them.”

Under the changes, west Midlands could revert to Warwickshire, Cumbria could be replaced by Cumberland and Westmorland while Merseyside could be scrapped and replaced by a larger Lancashire.”

Last year, James Brokenshire, when he was Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary, said:

“Locally-led changes to the structure of local government, whether in the form of unitarisation or district mergers, can – with local support – be an appropriate means of ensuring more sustainable local government and local service delivery, enhanced local accountability, and empowered local communities. This statement today continues the Government’s commitment to supporting those councils that wish to combine, to serve their communities better and will consider unitarisation and mergers between councils when locally requested. However, I recognise that unitarisation may not be appropriate everywhere. I also recognise that it is essential that any local government restructuring should be on the basis of locally led proposals and should not involve top-down Whitehall solutions being imposed on areas. The Government does not support top-down unitary restructuring. This has been the Government’s consistent approach since 2010.”

I suspect that approach will continue. Not least because a significant shift towards unitary authorities is already happening and has been taking place for a number of years.

The Conservative Manifesto last year merely stated:

“We remain committed to devolving power to people and places across the UK. Our ambition is for full devolution across England, building on the successful devolution of powers to city region mayors, Police and Crime Commissioners and others, so that every part of our country has the power to shape its own destiny. We will publish an English Devolution White Paper setting out our plans next year.”

It would be a bit of stretch to take that as a mandate for forced abolition of all the district councils.

There is a strong case for unitary status – with respect to both democracy and efficiency – in terms of ending duplication. The waste and confusion of residents of a town having two sets of councillors, a town hall and a county hall, two local authority chief executives on six-figure salaries… For example, it is not good for accountability that if the county council puts up the Council Tax, but the district council is blamed – because the bills are sent out at district level.

More contentious is the “economies of scale” argument. The logic of this is that the bigger the resulting unitary authority, the better. Ken Livingstone proposed replacing the 32 London boroughs with five “sub-regional partnerships” that would appear by dividing the map of London into slices of cake. That was not inspiring for local identity. But nor is it necessary for efficiency. Councils have alternatives to running everything themselves – such as sharing services or contracting them out to private companies. Flexibility is an example. The tri-borough arrangements for Hammersmith and Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea, and Westminster delivered great savings. But offering big contracts can also limit competition by making it harder for smaller firms to tender – I have written for this site about this being a difficulty in terms of school transport for disabled children.

It may make sense for a compromise where, rather than a county council swallowing up all the district councils, we have two or three unitary councils across a district.

Directly elected mayors come in two types. There are the Metro Mayors who run “combined authorities” as an extra layer on top of other local authorities. Examples include Andy Street in the West Midlands and Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester. They have powers for regeneration and integrated transport. They will naturally lobby for more power and larger budgets. They are a legacy from the Labour Government’s Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009 and are almost inevitably a corporatist force seeking greater state intervention.

Then there is the situation where a local authority replaces a council leader with a directly elected Mayor. Examples of where this has happened include Bristol, Middlesbrough, Leicester, and Watford. It has been implemented in several London boroughs – most unhappily in Tower Hamlets. It does provide an opportunity to shake up complacent, monolithic councils – not least by giving a chance for independents with a strong background in business or community service. Unlike the Metro Mayors, these local authority mayors are created (and could be abolished) via a referendum. Why not allow referendums to get rid of the Metro Mayors?

Eric Pickles, was a fearless radical as Communities and Local Government Secretary. Yet before entering Government he told this site:

“I’ll have a pearl-handled revolver waiting in my drawer for the first civil servant who suggests another local government reorganisation.”

Those of us who would like to see more unitary councils and directly-elected Mayors have to persuade others in our communities. However frustrating it might be for those in Downing Street, a different approach would be unlikely to be politically acceptable. Nor would it be justified.