Put people first, urge Nobel winners

Steve Crawshaw on an 'alternative summit' sponsored by this paper
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The Independent Online
THE Asia-Europe summit starting in London today is about relationships between the states in the two regions. In these, economics dominate. Human rights do not.

Yesterday, however, powerful alternative voices could be heard, saying economics should not obscure human-rights. Three Nobel prize-winners addressed an "alternative state reception", by video and in person, at the Royal Institute in central London.

Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel prize-winning leader of the Burmese pro-democracy movement, said in a message smuggled out of her country that it was "time everybody stopped trying to separate human rights from economics". She argued: "I am inclined to believe that a free and secure people have much more to contribute towards healthy trade relations than a repressed and insecure people."

The Dalai Lama, 1989 Nobel peace prize-winner, urged openness and honesty in dealing with China, whose Prime Minister, Zhu Rongji, received a warm welcome in London this week. "To quote two Tibetan expressions, 'The closer a friend, the more faults he will point out', and 'One never hears praise and appreciation from a true friend'."

Jose Ramos Horta, exiled leader of the East Timorese resistance and 1996 Nobel prize-winner, told guests at the Independent-sponsored reception: "Human rights are not only a moral imperative. Human rights, fundamental freedoms and the rule of law are also the only real guarantee of peace and stability that are necessary for economic progress." Robin Cook, Foreign Secretary, met Mr Ramos Horta this week. He received "assurances" that Mr Cook would raise the East Timor issue with his Indonesian counterpart, but few are under any illusions that such matters will be centre-stage.

On the relationship with China, too, rights play little more than a symbolic role. The ghosts of Tiananmen Square have become an irrelevance to the EU-China relationship, now entirely driven by business concerns.

Yesterday's official British gushing about Mr Zhu sidestepped the fact that the slaughter of pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square nine years ago remains a central and unresolved historical fact in modern China.

The event at the Royal Institute yesterday marked a joint collaboration between groups that described themselves as jointly representing "the unrepresented peoples of Asia". These included the Free Tibet Campaign, the Burma Action Group, the Tapol human-rights campaign on Indonesia, and the British Coalition for East Timor. The group is organising a march tomorrow through central London, from Jubilee Gardens to Trafalgar Square.