The Guardian Thursday 16 May 2013 16.39 BST
It often appears there is one rule for small, insignificant countries and another for rising superpowers seen as ‘strategic partners’
The Defending Freedoms Project calls on the US and EU to advocate on behalf of prisoners of conscience from around the world.’ Photograph: Clayton J. Price/ Clayton J. Price/CORBIS
"Open your newspaper any day of the week and you will find a report from somewhere in the world of someone being imprisoned, tortured or executed because his opinions or religion are unacceptable to his government." Those words were written 52 years ago in an Observer article by Peter Benenson, who would go on to found Amnesty International.
Since then, the world has undergone profound changes. The iron curtain has fallen, democracy has taken root in eastern Europe, Latin America and much of Africa, and rapid advances in technology have made us more globally interconnected than ever before. Nonetheless, arbitrary imprisonment, torture and execution on political grounds remain commonplace. China, the world’s rising superpower, continues to systematically engage in the political repression and torture of its citizens, with an estimated 7 to 8 million Chinese currently being held in prison or labour camps. From Cameroon to Cuba, Belarus to Bahrain, governments go on torturing and imprisoning those who dare to question their authority. For too many people around the world, the basic freedoms that are taken for granted in the west continue to be nothing but a distant dream.
On Wednesday, at the European parliament, we launched a transatlantic pact between the EU and US to highlight human rights abuses around the world. The Defending Freedoms Project, in association with Amnesty International and ChinaAid, calls on members of the European parliament and US congressmen and women to adopt and advocate on behalf of prisoners of conscience from around the world. Examples include Gao Zhisheng, the prominent Chinese human rights activist who has been repeatedly imprisoned and severely tortured for the last seven years. Or Nabeel Rajab, the Bahraini pro-democracy campaigner who has been beaten, jailed and denied medical treatment. By generating attention and support to these individual cases, it is hoped that combined pressure from the US and EU will help to secure their release.
Some regimes, including the Chinese government, defend oppression arguing that their societies place greater emphasis on political stability or economic growth than on individual freedoms. Yet this claim does not hold up to scrutiny. Chinese leaders have tried to bolster their waning legitimacy by pointing to the ancient ideals of Confucianism, as evidenced by the ubiquitous presence of state-sponsored Confucius Institutes around the world. But the ancient Confucian concept of minben asserted that "the people are the root of the state", and that their concerns should always come before the desires of those who rule them. Confucianism stresses the moral obligations and rights of the individual, and thus rejects a blind obedience to the state that reduces us all to mere cogs in the machine. Moreover, China’s government is failing to respect its own laws and the rights that are enshrined in the Chinese constitution.
As we saw most recently during the Arab spring, all people around the world instinctively crave the same basic freedoms: the right to speak your mind without fear of torture or imprisonment, to be free from extra-judicial execution and disappearance and to criticise your government without putting yourself or your loved ones in danger. These fundamental rights are indisputably universal, and should be upheld at any cost. Benjamin Franklin once famously stated: "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither."
For too long, western governments have stood by as authoritarian regimes around the world engage in systematic repression with impunity. The EU-China human rights dialogue, established 14 years ago, has yielded no tangible results, serving instead as a fig leaf for European leaders’ general reluctance to challenge China robustly on its human rights record. The US, while historically more outspoken in its criticism of the Chinese government, has been increasingly cowed in recent years by China’s growing economic and military might.
Likewise, European leaders have tended to mute their concerns over Moscow’s deteriorating human rights record, largely as a result of their dependence on Russian oil and gas. Last month, in a welcome step, the US administration published a blacklist of 18 Russian human rights abusers who will now be subject to financial and travel sanctions. But until relatively recently, overt criticism was overshadowed by Obama’s desire to "reset" relations with Russia and promote strategic and economic co-operation. Too often, it has appeared that there is one rule for small, insignificant countries such as Zimbabwe or Myanmar, and another for those rising superpowers deemed to be "strategic partners."
Together, the EU and US account for around half of global GDP and almost two-thirds of global military spending. A co-ordinated, transatlantic approach to human rights would mean the world’s rising authoritarian powers could no longer act with impunity. Much has been made of the proposed EU-US trade agreement, and how this could counter China’s growing power by allowing the EU and US to jointly set global trading rules. By using their combined economic and political clout, the EU and US could equally be promoting global standards on fundamental human rights.
In recent weeks, the heated debate over Britain’s EU membership has largely revolved around economic costs and benefits. But international co-operation is not just about promoting trade and economic prosperity. It is about giving Britain the ability to project its influence around the globe.
Throughout history, there has been no authoritarian regime that has not eventually crumbled. None have been able to indefinitely repress the inherent human desire for justice and freedom from tyranny and subjugation. However, in showing solidarity with those who have the courage to challenge their oppressors, we can help to speed up the process of reform. And by co-operating with its allies, both in the EU and beyond, Britain can uphold its values and principles in a rapidly changing world.