A substantive debate on Tibet took place in Parliament in the UK on December 10, Human Rights Day and the 25th anniversary of the Dalai Lama receiving the Nobel Peace Prize.

The House of Commons debate, opened by MP Fabian Hamilton, who is the chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Tibet, was the first debate on Tibet in British Parliament in three years and the second since 2008. As an adjournment debate, the government had a duty to respond and UK Foreign Office Minister Hugo Swire made a statement in response to the MPs, in which he said: “The subject commands such interest right across the House that it deserves rather more than an hour-and-a-half Westminster Hall debate, and it would be good if we could return to the subject.”

The full transcript is online at: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201415/cmhansrd/cm141210/halltext/141210h0001.htm#14121024000001 (on video: http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Main/Player.aspx?meetingId=16688).

Matteo Mecacci, President of the International Campaign for Tibet, said: “The debate sent an important signal that the situation in Tibet is a matter of serious concern in the UK, which has a unique historic relationship with the Tibetan people – Britain was the only country to have diplomatic relations with an independent Tibet. While the discussion was wide-ranging and substantive, the government response to the MPs was inadequate, re-stating its position rather than asserting the UK’s leverage to influence China on a matter of concern. In the light of China’s aggressive diplomacy towards the UK recently, for instance on Hong Kong, a more robust approach to China on Tibet and other matters is ultimately in the UK’s interests.”

In a long statement made in response, which mostly reiterated the UK government’s position on Tibet, Foreign Office Minister Hugo Swire said: “The Dalai Lama is recognised worldwide as an important religious figure and esteemed Nobel laureate, having been awarded the peace prize in 1989. Given that he has stated publicly that he does not seek Tibetan independence, we encourage the Chinese Government and Tibetan interest groups to seek a peaceful resolution to their differences through a resumption of dialogue.” Mr Swire made a specific mention of the case of Tenzin Deleg Rinpoche, a respected lama serving life in prison, saying that the UK had raised the case in Beijing and urged the Chinese government to consider “parole on medical grounds”.

The Minister denied that the UK government were compromising their position on Tibet and human rights due to trade interests, saying: “I utterly reject the point that we are in some way subjugating our principles on human rights because of Chinese money.”

Prominent British commentators have questioned the UK’s approach to China particularly since the visits to China of Prime Minister David Cameron and the Chancellor George Osborne last year. There was concern that austerity-hit Britain had compromised its leverage as a strong member state in the EU as well as its competitiveness in business through the lack of a national debate and no sign of reciprocity in a series of new Chinese investments in the UK, including China’s proposed future majority stake-holding in Britain’s nuclear power industry. Questions were raised about the relationship with a Party state whose values, interests and practices are so clearly at odds with British democracy.

The UK’s approach to China came under fire in the Tibet debate, with MP Kate Hoey saying: “Unless we start standing up to China, as the European Union or as a country, it will not buckle to anything other than force, in terms of what we are saying—I am not suggesting we invade China, but I am suggesting that we start to mean what we say. Warm words have come out of all Governments, including this one and the previous one. China has a terrible human rights record not only in Tibet, but all over China. I want the Minister to outline clearly what more the Chinese have to do to people in Tibet and through their influence in this country before we as a British Government say, ‘Enough is enough.’”

MP Fabian Hamilton, who led the debate, noted the dangers of the new ‘counter-terrorism’ drive in Tibet, stating: “Since last May, following the killings in Xinjiang, an expansive counter-terrorism drive has been launched by the Chinese government and has expanded across China, including Tibet. In Tibet, the Chinese authorities have organised large-scale military drills and intensified border security, and are holding training exercises for troops on responding to self-immolation and on dealing with problems in monasteries, in spite of the absence of any violent insurgency in Tibet. Armed responses to protests, including killing with impunity and the torture and imprisonment of individuals, have become the cause of instability and are therefore deeply counter-productive.” (ICT report, New aggressive “counter-terrorism” campaign expands from Xinjiang to Tibet with increased militarization of the plateau). Mr Hamilton, who raised the cases of a number of Tibetan singers imprisoned for their songs, urged the British government to “strengthen policies towards China and Tibet, and to be more robust, with a clear stance and directive regarding human rights, civil society and democratic rights.”