To fold on rights is not an option


LONDON — In his recently published self-justifying and self-congratulatory memoir “Decision Points,” former U.S. president George W. Bush declared that the waterboarding of al-Qaida suspects, which he had authorized, was justified because the information obtained from the suspects had been instrumental in preventing attacks on London’s Heathrow airport and Canary Wharf offices.

No member of the present British government or of the former Labour party administration has been able to confirm the truth of this allegation. Nor has there been any confirmation from British intelligence sources.

Waterboarding is a form of torture. It is immoral and contrary to U.N. agreements to which the United States has adhered. Both the present and former British administrations have firmly ruled out the use of torture in interrogations or other procedures as has President Barack Obama.

Apart from the moral issue British intelligence considers information obtained under torture as unreliable. Suspects subjected to torture will say whatever they think is likely to please their interrogators.

Should intelligence received from other countries whose practices may include torture be ignored if the information suggests an imminent threat? Of course not, but every effort must be made to verify the information.

The CIA is reported to have gotten around restrictions on torture by means of extraordinary rendition in which suspects were transferred to other countries where torture almost certainly took place. Extraordinary rendition is not an acceptable practice.

If we condone any form of torture, criticism of rights abuses in other countries will rightly be seen as hypocritical. But how far should we go in trying to get other countries to adopt our standards in respecting human rights?

This issue has been at the forefront of minds in Britain during the recent visit to China of Prime Minister David Cameron and a large delegation of business men. The Chinese government drew particular attention to its poor human rights record by continuing the imprisonment of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. The attempt by the Chinese Embassy in Oslo to dissuade diplomatic colleagues from attending the awards ceremony has been provocative and counterproductive.

Chinese authorities were also insensitive to British opinion in placing under house arrest the Chinese artist Ai Wei-Wei on grounds that he was organizing a banquet to “celebrate” the destruction by local authorities of his studio in Shanghai. The artist was recently in London to attend an exhibition at the Tate Modern gallery (South bank of the Thames) of his “work” consisting of millions of tiny painted ceramics in the form of sunflower seeds. It attracted a good deal of attention in the British press.

The British media called on David Cameron to make clear to Chinese leaders Britain’s condemnation of Chinese treatment of dissidents. The prime minister, no doubt with an eye on potential trade deals, decided not to indulge in what has been termed “megaphone diplomacy.” Instead he is reported to have mentioned British concerns privately and in a low key.

In a speech to students at Beijing University, he indirectly criticized the Chinese system by emphasizing the virtues of democratic government in Britain. This speech was not reported in the Chinese media. Perhaps this was all that could be expected from the leader of a country that is trying to increase exports as part of its strategy for dealing with budget deficits.

In August, a speech in Shenzen by Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao called for political reform, but it was not been echoed by other Chinese leaders or the Chinese media. The failure to report and elaborate on the premier’s words suggests that his thoughts on political reform are not endorsed by the leadership generally.

The Chinese leadership apparently still firmly believes that political reform and any move toward more democratic institutions would likely lead to unrest and chaos. But China’s growing middle class will surely not remain content forever with economic reform without an increasing say in how the country is run.

China is not, of course, the only country where human rights are abused and where the democratic institutions that should reduce such abuses are underdeveloped or nonexistent. The most egregious example is North Korea with its brutal dictatorial regime. In Burma (aka Myanmar) the generals have at last freed from house arrest prodemocracy leader and former Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. Burma’s recent elections were far from free and it remains to be seen how far the junta will allow her to act freely.

Other examples of antidemocratic regimes that abuse human rights can be found in the Middle East (Iran), Africa (Zimbabwe) and Latin America (Cuba). But the fact that China is not a unique case should not make us less critical of human rights abuses in China. The huge Chinese population and the extent of its territory (which includes ethnic minorities such as Tibetans who continue to be persecuted) make it particularly important that political reform come to China.

How can we best help to ensure change in China and other countries that abuse human rights? There is no easy answer. Publicity must be given to human rights abuses, yet public lecturing by foreign leaders can be counterproductive. Change will almost certainly occur as a result of pressure from within.

We can help by providing education through our schools and universities. Dissidents must be given asylum if they seek it and given opportunities to voice their opposition.

We must not give in to suggestions that Chinese authorities will take steps against our business interests if we continue to criticize them. Chinese leaders will eventually learn that they are damaging their own interests by implying such. We need to ensure, by coordinating our policies with our allies and friends, that the Chinese cannot play one country off against another.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.