Why can’t Hague pronounce two little words?
It is not usually difficult to get William Hague to use words. He is the master wordsmith of parliament. He uses words to great effect to hammer down on opponents or with stiletto wit to disarm and win his argument by getting MPs to laugh in agreement. But yesterday, despite my best efforts, he could not pronounce two short words. They are Liu Xiaobo. He is China’s Nobel peace prize laureate. This week two other Nobel peace prize laureates from Asia, Aung San Suu Kyi from Burma and the Dalai Lama from Tibet visit parliament to speak to MPs.
The third Asian Nobel peace laureate is Liu Xiaobo. He was given the award last year. But like Aung San Suu Kyi he is locked away by the tyrannical authorities who rule China. When he was made a Nobel laureate one might have thought it was an opportunity to free Mr Liu. The Chinese prefer to keep him in their gulag.
I repeatedly asked David Cameron to mention Liu Xiaobo by name when he visited China shortly after the Nobel prize award. The prime minister refused. I made the same point to other ministers but was always told Britain had a ‘human rights dialogue’ with China where all issues were discussed. But a Nobel peace laureate deserves strong and more public support from the leaders of the democratic nations.
Mr Cameron’s pusillanimity is shaming. He is no doubt acting on the advice of officials and the business community who do not want to challenge the Chinese one-party state on its systemic repression of human rights and democracy – the causes Liu Xiaobo has sacrificed his freedom to raise.
So with two other Asian Nobel peace laureate visiting parliament this week it seemed a good moment to invite William Hague to mention his name when he was at the despatch box standing in for the prime minister at PMQs yesterday. But this man of so many words found his tongue was tied. There were two words – Liu Xiaobo – he could not pronounce. He waffled about the UK-China human rights dialogue but the two words, Liu Xiaobo, could not cross his lips.
Luckily the Speaker saved the honour of parliament with a comment after Hague’s refusal to call for Liu’s release. Standing up in his chair the speaker carefully and clearly pronounced the name Liu Xiaobo. The symbolism was important. It was parliament speaking up for human rights in China by naming a name that the government was too cowardly to pronounce.
Hague was reflecting the dislike of today’s Tories to discuss human rights save in easy areas like praising Aung San Suu Kyi or denouncing Robert Mugabe. Last week one Tory MP, Andrew Rosindell, even praised one of the most brutal torturers and killers of recent time, Chile’s General Pinochet. Today the inspiring Burmese pro-democracy leader addresses MPs and Peers. But there is a golden opportunity to remember other men and women who still suffer as a result of speaking out or standing up for the same principles as Aung San Suu Kyi.
Obvious candidates that come to mind include Leyla Zana, a Turkish member of parliament who was sentenced to 10 years in prison last month because she speaks up for Kurdish issues.
The young face of a happy father, the Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, put to death by the state apparatus in Moscow after he revealed a $230 million tax theft perpetrated on a British company, would remind the world of the absence of rule of law and state accountability in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The prime minister refused to mention his name in public on his visit to Moscow despite being invited to do so.
In Vietnam there is Dau Van Duong, a Catholic pro-democracy activist who is in prison with three of his comrades for speaking out for religious and political freedom. William Hague went to Hanoi recently. He did not mention the names of political prisoners held in communist prisons in Vietnam in any public statements during his visit.
The downgrading of human rights as part of the FCO’s work and the timorous failure of William Hague to let the name of China’s Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo pass his lips is one of the saddest developments since the Tories and Liberal Democrats took over.
Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and a former FCO minister. He tweets @denismacshane
Aung San Suu Kyi, China, Conservatives, Dalai Lama, democracy, human rights, John Bercow, Liu Xiaobo, Nobel peace prize, Parliament, Russia, Sergei Magnitsky, Speaker, Tibet, Vladimir Putin, William Hague