The Blog

Man Threatens State Banquet

A man has threatened to embarrass the forthcoming State Banquet at Buckingham Palace.

The Queen will host the President of China as her guest of honour. Some 170 guests will attend in full formal attire and raise their glasses to welcome him.

But the gracious decorum has been threatened by one of those who will attend. He attaches great importance to British values, and is proposing to talk about them during the banquet.

The Daily Mail this week warned: "Jeremy Corbyn may embarrass the Queen by raising human rights abuses with the Chinese president at a state banquet next week".

Apparently, it would not only be embarrassing to raise human rights issues like the country's executions, seen above. To talk about them openly with the Chinese would be against British government policy.

Human rights are no longer a "top priority" for the government, Sir Simon McDonald, Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office, told MPs just before Chancellor George Osborne visited China. Leading a trade delegation, the chancellor remained mute on the country's human rights record. Sir Simon said that human rights no longer had the "profile" within his department that they had "in the past".

British values

So where does that leave us in the intensifying debate about the need to defend and promote "British values"?

Particular attention has been paid to the historic role played by Magna Carta in shaping those values. Prime Minister David Cameron has said that every child in the UK should be taught about the charter as part of a drive to promote British values.

"Magna Carta has become the foundation of the freedom of the individual against authority," said Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty, in an article for The British Library to mark this year's 800th anniversary of the document.

Indeed that principle may be one of the greatest exports that Britain has offered to the world. It is now enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the still growing body of international treaties designed to protect individuals - everywhere - from the abuse of power by the state.

It is these values that Jeremy Corbyn, now Leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition, is seeking to raise with the Chinese President during his state visit to London next week.

How far have we come?

Let's look at just one of the issues on the Chinese menu. Forty years after the Chinese army entered Tibet, causing thousands to flee across the Himalayas, Lord David Ennals, former Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, visited the region. The purpose was to inspect conditions in the wake of riots protesting Chinese oppression. A friend of the Chinese, Lord Ennals was the first official Western observer granted access to Tibet at that time.

On his return he was invited to testify before the United States Congressional Human Rights Caucus. He said that what he observed could only be described as "colonialism" and "apartheid". The human rights abuses would continue, he told the Congressional Representatives, until the United States and other powerful Western nations showed some interest.

His words were prophetic.

China's human rights record, not only in Tibet, but across its territory remains a cause for deep concern. A recent Amnesty International report cited contining violations on freedoms of religious belief, expression, association and assembly. It also cited the the use of torture and the country's lucrative trade in torture equipment. The death penalty remains in place; last year alone 2,400 people were executed.

At particular risk were "human rights defenders" it said. They "continued to risk harassment, arbitrary detention, imprisonment, and torture and other ill-treatment for their legitimate human rights work."

Speaking up

So what do those courageous Chinese citizens who are challenging their government -- one of the most powerful states in the world - expect from us in Britain, the home of Magna Carta? That we would be afraid of embarrassing the Queen and her guest - their president - by using rude words like "torture" and "ill-treatment" over dinner?

Jeremy Corbyn's answer is clear. He has been an embarrassing figure most of his life, speaking out on human rights issues worldwide, as seen below.

"I have huge admiration for human rights defenders all over the world. I've met hundreds of these very brave people during my lifetime working on international issues," Jeremy Corbyn told the recent Labour Party conference.

"I've been standing up for human rights, challenging oppressive regimes for 30 years as a backbench MP. Just because I've become the leader of this party, I'm not going to stop standing up on those issues or being that activist," he declared.

Mr Corbyn's office has confirmed that he is seeking a meeting with the Chinese delegation and has not ruled out bringing the issue up at the state dinner.

He may be standing up for a set of centuries' old British values that are no longer the currency of government.

Recently, the Prime Minister agreed not to meet His Holiness the Dalai Lama "in the foreseeable future" after he angered the Chinese by meeting the Tibetan leader in 2012. Last week, His Holiness was asked by The Spectator magazine what he would say to Mr Cameron if the two did meet. "Money, money, money," said His Holiness. "That's what this is about. Where is morality?"