Realpolitik Trumps Human Rights: Irish Foreign Policy, Tibetan Nomads and China

On the 9th of December last, 2014, the day before the United Nations International day of Human Rights, the Irish President, Michael D Higgins, gave a speech at a business breakfast in Beijing hosted by two state development agencies: the Industrial development Agency (IDA) and Enterprise Ireland, the latter being of particular importance as it the government body responsible for the development and growth of Irish-owned enterprises in world markets. The President pointed out, amongst other things, that bilateral trade exchanges between Ireland and China are now in the region of €8 billion a year and that China is now by far Ireland’s leading trade partner in Asia. He also noted that on average one new Irish company a month is establishing a permanent presence in diverse Chinese markets, adding to the 91 Irish companies already there.

Not an inconsiderable sum of money, and not an inconsiderable commercial presence. A fact, many would argue, which no doubt adds to Ireland’s growing ‘soft’ economic power and diplomatic influence in China. It is an influence which many argue should be brought to bear on furthering the cause of human rights in the country — a component of Ireland’s very own moral and ethical foreign policy, perhaps.

And yet, trade and investment and the protection of human rights often make uncomfortable bed fellows. At best they coexist awkwardly. Who, after all, wants to embarrass powerful guests and potentially lucrative trading partners by asking uncomfortable questions? Speaking ‘truth to power’ exerts a commercial and diplomatic price after all. At worst, they are diametrically opposed ‘national interests’, if indeed the protection of human rights abroad really is a national interest for most Western countries; beyond the usual rhetorical flourishes that is. And furthermore, at least up to this point, it is practically an uncontroversial truism to point out that trade and investment as overriding national interests have almost always trumped the concerns of human rights. This is as true of Ireland as it is of France, Britain or the United States. In that sense, considering the current neoliberal orthodoxy in the West and elsewhere and the hijacking of human rights as a tool by that orthodoxy to further geopolitical aims, this should not come as any great surprise.

Abstract Diplomacy?

The President represents the people of Ireland when making state visits abroad or when greeting heads of state at home. In his role, according to the Irish Constitution, the President does not have an executive or policy role. So, according to Article 13, specifically provisions 9 and 11 of the Constitution and decades of diplomatic custom and protocol, and by some constructed constitutional fiction (or maybe an apolitical parallel universe) the President is meant to be ‘above politics’; that is at least above party politics, and ideology. In this sense the Irish Presidency is very different from its American or French counterpart; it is largely an honorific position. Instead, President Higgins is advised by the Irish government, senior diplomats, the Council of State, and other civil servants at the Department of Foreign Affairs on the political and economic nuances of each occasion. Or perhaps instructed might not be too strong a phrase.

Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charlie Flanagan, and Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan

Irish Presidents abroad, particularly in ‘sensitively commercial’ countries such as China, must maintain what can only be described as a decorative and congenial silence — taking part in lots of ‘cordial meetings’ and ‘building links’ which, in turn, are ‘highly productive’, that kind of abstract thing. Call it abstract diplomacy. In any event, President Higgins was uncharacteristically quiet on the matter of human rights, leaving it instead, by all accounts, to admonish his Chinese hosts with a few cryptic quotes from George Bernard Shaw on the ‘evils of authoritarianism’. Uncharacteristic that is in the sense that as both an academic and as a politician he has been outspoken on issues as diverse as American foreign policy in Central America in the 1980s to Gaza more recently.

Yet, to his credit in the past, President Higgins has spoken his mind on many occasions. He has for example been highly critical of many of the worst features of Neoliberalism — both as an ideology and as an economic discipline — and its impact on basic human rights in Ireland. That is by criticising, if somewhat obliquely, the current government’s austerity policies. His comments, albeit welcome, have been mostly at the abstract level. In that vein, the President reportedly brought up the issue of human rights violations in China to the Chinese Premier Xi Jinping in private. In public however he was silent, no doubt dictated to by the protocols of diplomatic realpolitik and the Constitution.

The same restrictions however do not apply to the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charlie Flanagan, who recently publicly stated at a conference on business and human rights that the, ‘promotion and protection of human rights throughout the world’ is to be a priority for the Irish government. If so, why the silence on China’s well documented human rights violations from Charlie Flanagan? If the President is restricted, however those restrictions are to be interpreted, then surely Charlie Flanagan is not precluded from speaking truth to power, or at least raising the issues publicly? Flanagan recently stated in the ‘Global Island’ the first major review of Ireland’s foreign policies in twenty years, that, ‘ Our foreign policy is a statement about us as a people’ and that we have a, ‘proud tradition of principled engagement on issues such as development, UN peacekeeping, disarmament and human rights.’ He also proclaimed that our values are that of justice and fairness. But are they? Are they when trade and human rights clash as competing foreign policy imperatives?

Hundreds of thousands of Tibetan pastoralist nomads have been resettled ‘Concrete Villages’ similar to the one shown here on the right

In the context of Chinese repression of human rights the brutal truth however for the victims is more prosaic; for there is nothing abstract about the gross human rights violations which result as a consequence of China’s internal economic, social and political policies.

The Human Rights Reality in China

Two years ago I was fortunate enough to spend five months working for a small online newspaper in Dharamshala, India. The newspaper, a Tibetan publication in-exile catering to the local Tibetan refugee community and to Tibetans in Tibet, is funded solely by a small grant from Reporters Without Borders. The paper reports daily on human rights abuses in the Tibetan regions of Western China. On the first day that I arrived I was informed by a member of staff, an ethnic Tibetan refugee, that the paper was routinely monitored by the Chinese authorities, both online and offline. I have no idea if this was true or not, but given China’s notorious irritability on ‘internal human right issues’ particularly in the troublesome ethnic regions of Western China, Tibet and Xinjiang, I have no reason to disbelieve it either. China routinely curbs press freedoms in Tibet and elsewhere within its borders, and for that there is good reason.

Another Tibetan colleague, let’s call her ‘Mepa’, was originally from a nomadic background. As a young girl she had lived what many in the West would regard as an almost an idyllic pastoralist lifestyle on the vast Tibetan rangelands, herding animals from summer pastures to autumn pastures. It is a lifestyle that evokes mobility and freedom, but it was also she reliably informed me very, very tough. Nevertheless, despite its downsides, including the second-class position of women, it was her culture and she was rightly proud of it. But now, sadly, in 2014, that culture and society is in terminal decline, and it is in terminal decline because of China’s development policies in the region. And where such authoritarian socio-economic policies take place, human rights violations invariably follow.

Those policies have, as their fundamental social, cultural and political objective, the aim of pulling the western regions of the country, including Tibet, into an ever-increasing marketised economy. An economy increasingly dominated by ethnic Han Chinese who have been migrating in ever greater numbers in government initiated schemes into the Tibet. In essence, it is by any other name a state run project of settler colonialism, with all that implies for the indigenous populations of the region. As a result hundreds of thousands of nomads have been displaced and dispossesed and resettled in euphemistically titled, ‘New Socialist Villages’. Well over one hundred Tibetans, many no doubt from a nomadic background, have burned their bodies as a result of what they see as state repression.

In 2013 I wrote this in an academic article:

Since 2009, at least one hundred Tibetans (predominately in rural Amdo and Kham) have burned themselves to death as a form of socio-political protest against religious and cultural repression. Although difficult to verify accurately due to reporting restrictions and sensitive security issues within Tibetan regions, many seem to come from a nomadic background. How much dispossession and resettlement play in these wider protests against Chinese rule is difficult to fully discern…but at the very least a tentative causal link can be advanced between both socio-political phenomenona. Religion, culture and identity are inextricably linked in both settled and nomadic Tibetan society; the motives for selfimmolation as an extreme individual protest against perceived injustice are no less entangled. However, physical dispossession of land and loss of nomadic cultural identity may well feed into the decision to burn one’s body as a form of political dissent. In the context of nomadic Buddhist culture, the act is not just an individual political protest against repression, but ultimately enacted as self-sacrifice for all the community. Understood in these terms, it is not a passive act of desperation but rather an act of non-violent and proactive solidarity in opposition to oppressive state policies.”

A four thousand year old pastoralist lifetsyle on the Tibetan plateau now, almost, disappeared

Hundreds of thousands of Tibetan nomads have been evicted, dispossessed, and displaced since 1999, largely to make way for the commercial mining of their ancient lands-Western China has huge reserves of lithium, copper, chromite, uranium, gold and oil. There have also been public works programs and the construction of huge infrastructural programs, such as dams, railways, airports and motorways. Many western companies have been involved in this process. Hundreds, if not thousands, will also be involved in the future commercial opportunities that such rapid development brings. At some future point there will also be Irish companies involved, if they are not already.

But in truth the Tibetan nomadic issue is only one amongst a litany of human rights abuses in China, even the most basic of rights are routinely curtailed. Including, but not limited to: freedom of religion, freedom of expression (both offline and online), freedom of peaceful assembly, and the due process of law. Not to mention the forcible displacement of millions of ordinary Chinese to make way for development projects.

Many social, cultural and political dissidents are in prison or house arrest, amongst them to name only a few are: Nobel Laureate Liu Xiabo, Tibetan activist Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, and human rights lawyer, Gao Zhisheng. On the above issues, including the often obscure nexus between human rights abuses, environmental degradation, state investment and commercial practices by mining companies in Tibet and elsewhere, President Higgins did not speak. In doing so, he missed an important opportunity to highlight grave injustices. This is all the more surprising considering that he asserted in a lecture given in 2012, on International Human Rights Day, at the Irish Human Rights Commission that:

‘Ireland’s recent election to the United Nations Human Rights Council…is both a great honour for Ireland and a tribute to its foreign policy and its human rights component. It is also a significant opportunity to advance a meaningful discourse on human rights at international level, to return to some basic considerations of issues neglected and to put human rights in an indivisible way into the development debate.’

President Higgins recently announced an Ethics Initiative, which would, amongst other things, explore as one its key themes the ‘ethical connection between our economy and society’. More specifically, the themes explored compromised of: ethics in economics, business practices, financial services and professions. Great rhetoric no doubt, and certainly well meaning. But the real issue is this: if actions are to speak louder than words, then the words must first be spoken, and more importantly still, spoken in public. If not by the President, then surely the Minister for Foreign Affairs has both a moral and diplomatic duty to speak. Otherwise from Ireland’s position, in truth, there is little or no ‘meaningful discourse on human rights at international level’.

Self-immolations in Tibet since 2013

‘Mepa’ speaks out every day, writing and campaigning, on political, social and economic human rights abuses in China, including the spate of tragic self-immolations ongoing this last few years. If she can, with the meagre resources she has at her disposal, and if the President is severely curtailed, why then can Charlie Flanagan not speak meaningfully on human rights in China? Or for that matter, why the silence from Enda Kenny the Irish Prime Minister?

Tibetan proverb: As a thing is viewed, so it appears.

For in truth, not to address human rights violations openly and not to raise the difficult questions, speaks to a much more fundamental truth; that is, it is not that the ‘collective human rights conscience’ of our body politic is conflicted, or even dormant: it is that we have still not fully created one for the 21st century.


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