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Exclusive: Shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy has accused foreign secretary Dominic Raab of having double standards on the matter of punishing gross human rights violations abroad.
Nandy told PoliticsHome that while the foreign office has been “swift” to impose sanctions on Belarus for its crackdown on civil liberties, Raab has consistently “shied away” from taking meaningful action on China for its human rights violations.
Meanwhile, chancellor Rishi Sunak has been accused of “rolling out the red carpet” to Chinese President Xi Jingping in pursuit of a trade deal.
On Monday, Raab announced a host of financial, trade and aviation sanctions against Alexander Lukashenko’s regime.
The Belarusian President began a sixth term in office last year after receiving 80 per cent of the vote in an election denounced as “fraudulent” by the UK and US.
Since then, government forces have unleashed a brutal crackdown on dissenters, arresting demonstrators who speak against Lukashenko and quashing citizens’ rights to peaceful protest and freedom of speech.
Among the sanctions Britain is imposing on Belarus are trade measures on potash, petroleum products and spyware technology, as well as a prohibition on purchasing transferable securities and money-market instruments issued by the state or state-owned banks.
Belarusian opposition leader, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, has welcomed the move, commenting that the “package of trade, financial, and aviation measures against Lukashenko’s state will help to fight its impunity and force it to dialogue”.
However, while the sanctions also received cross-party support from parliamentarians, MPs have pointed to a discrepancy between foreign office action on Belarus versus China.
Concerns over the treatment of minority Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, alongside China’s repeated non-compliance with the Sino-British joint declaration, have triggered widespread calls for tougher sanctions against Xi Jinping’s regime.
Nandy told PoliticsHome: “The Foreign Secretary talks tough about human rights but when it comes to China his rhetoric isn’t matched by his actions. While he accuses the Chinese Government of ‘industrial scale’ human rights abuses, the Chancellor is rolling out the red carpet in pursuit of a trade deal.
“The Foreign Office has been swift to impose sanctions in the case of Belarus but shied away from taking decisive action when it comes to China. How can the Foreign Secretary expect Beijing to take him seriously when he isn’t even taken seriously around the cabinet table?”
Nandy added: “China poses a unique set of challenges for all liberal democracies. Any Government that is serious about defending human rights in Hong Kong and Xinjiang needs a clear and consistent strategy, working in step with our allies. Press releases are no substitute for a plan.”
In March this year Raab announced that four senior Chinese officials linked to abuse against Uyghurs, and the Public Security Bureau of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, would be targeted with asset freezes and travel bans.
But many MPs and peers, including some Tory backbenchers, have argued the sanctions aren’t strong enough.
Concerns have been raised by parliamentarians that the government is treading lightly on China over fears of compromising economic relations.
Cross-bench peer, Lord David Alton of Liverpool, told PoliticsHome: “It is no trifling matter and is a welcome first step that sanctions have been introduced on four Chinese officials, but the government must go further, and promptly, to leave the Chinese Communist Party in absolutely no doubt that the UK will put human rights before its commercial trading interests.
“The House of Commons had declared what is happening in Xinjiang to be a Genocide. How can it be licit for UK Ministers to say they want to deepen our commercial and trading links with a State credibly accused of Genocide? In comparing our much tougher and welcome response to Lukashenko it’s no coincidence that vested interests don’t have much sway in that debate.”
Polling conducted last month by anti-racism advocacy group Hope Not Hate found that 77% of Tory members support the international community forcing China to improve its human rights practices.
Among those polled, 79% of Conservative voters believe China should be forced into taking action.
Liberal Democrat Spokesperson for Home Affairs, Alistair Carmichael, told PoliticsHome: “Human rights are nothing if they are not universal. Whether it’s attempted genocide against the Uyghur people by the Chinese authorities or torture and crackdowns on freedoms in Belarus, the UK government’s response should be worthy of this country’s legacy on human rights.”
Carmichael, who also co-chairs parliament’s APPG Uyghurs, added: “Earlier this year the UK government-imposed sanctions on human rights abusers in China. The UK parliament then voted to declare that genocide is taking place in Xinjiang. Both were welcome actions, but the government should be as brave on abuses by Xi Jinping’s government as they are with abuses by Alexander Lukashenko’s regime.”
Campaigners have similarly raised concerns over the foreign office’s “selective” approach to punishing foreign state-sanctioned human rights abuses.
Luke de Pulford, co-ordinator of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China told PoliticsHome: “Why have we got this selective approach to human rights? The Chinese government has completely destroyed an international treaty with the UK and there has been no accountability for it whatsoever.
“On the one hand you’ve got us doing nothing whatsoever to hold China to account for what they have done to Hong Kong and on the other hand you’ve got the UK – and they could’ve been faster out of the traps – clamping down on Belarus for what they’ve done.
“The (foreign office) doesn’t care about Belarus’ economy because they’re not very powerful and they’re easy to punish. That isn’t the case for China. We’ve had years of doomed, failed policy, trying to create some sort of golden era of relations between China and the UK, where we’ve had to hold our noses and try and hitch our economy to theirs in the hope we’ll get favourable trading terms.”
A spokesperson for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office said: “The UK Government takes all allegations of human rights violations very seriously. Sanctions are an important, but not the only, tool to support the delivery of UK foreign policy and national security objectives.
“The UK Government has repeatedly expressed its serious concerns about the human rights situation in Xinjiang, and has led international efforts to hold China to account for its human rights violations in the region. As well as sanctions including asset freezes and travel bans on senior Chinese officials, we have announced additional measures to help ensure that no UK organisations are complicit in these violations through their supply chains.”
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