Nicola Sturgeon has been warned by Amnesty International she must publicly demonstrate that business relationships forged on her trade mission to China do not involve companies linked to human rights abuses.
The warning was issued by Amnesty’s Scotland programme director Naomi McAuliffe as the First Minister flew to Beijing yesterday for a five-day trip to promote Chinese/Scottish relations.
McAuliffe has personally briefed the First Minister about Amnesty’s concern about Chinese human rights violations including extensive use of the death penalty, crackdowns on freedom of expression and the plight of jailed activists.
The briefing at Holyrood was held at the Scottish Government’s request as it attempts to avoid the damaging publicity that resulted from previous attempts to forge relationships with Chinese companies.
Two years ago the Scottish Government came under fire when Sturgeon signed a £10 billion “memorandum of understanding (MOU)” with Sinofortone Group and China Railway No 3 Engineering Group (CR3).
It emerged that CR3’s parent company, China Railway Group, had been named in an Amnesty report on human rights abuses and had been blacklisted by Norway’s oil fund.
The council of ethics for Norway’s oil fund recommended against investing in the China Railway Group because of an “unacceptable risk of the company being responsible for gross corruption”.
The Scottish Government’s MOU collapsed following the outcry. Yesterday McAuliffe said: “Trade should never come over and above human rights abuses. The Scottish Government has international obligations around this, they need to uphold these obligations and make sure that parliament and the public can scrutinise any deals that come out of this in an open and transparent way.”
After the CR3 debacle, which became known as the “Scottish shambles” in China, the Scottish Government last year promised to carry out a “robust human rights impact assessment”.
McAuliffe said ministers had to demonstrate that such a process was being carried out diligently and thoroughly.
“How are they going about doing this due diligence? From Amnesty’s point of view we would want to see what kind of sources of information they are using to do background checks. We would want to make sure they are thoroughly done and they are talking to human rights activists in the country to make sure there is information coming from them and not just sources such as a the Foreign Office or even the UN, but actual activists on the ground.”
The Amnesty briefing given to Sturgeon said figures for 2016 suggested China still executed more than one thousand people per year, handing out the death sentence to more people than the rest of the world combined.
It also expressed concern about violations of freedom of expression through blocking of social media sites and detainment of individuals campaigning on human rights.
On overseas business links, it noted that companies with interests in mining and construction are “particularly prone to causing serious harm in local communities in the absence of measures to protect their rights”.
Sturgeon will meet Chinese government and business representatives as she explores ways of making Scotland and China work together “for the mutual benefit of all our people”. She has also said she will raise human rights issues.
The Scottish Government said there will be no formal trade deals signed on this particular trip. However relationships formed could lead to agreements in the future.
Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie echoed Amnesty’s concerns and said the Scottish Government must publish human rights reports that it does on companies that it intends to do business with.
He pointed to Economy Secretary Keith Brown’s pledge last year to develop a “robust human rights impact assessment” process for companies the government was dealing with. But at a recent First Minister’s Questions Sturgeon failed to say when this would be published or what checks had been done on the firms she was set to meet. Rennie said: “The Scottish Government has had more than a year to explain how they intend to mend their ways but they have completely failed to deliver.
“We need to know whether companies have been subject to the strengthened human rights assessments process promised over a year ago.
“After all, they (ministers) spent months defending an ill-fated deal they did with Chinese companies they hadn’t so much as googled, expending time, resources and Scotland’s reputation for good business in the process. We cannot afford for a single company or country to get the wrong impression about the value that the Scottish Government and the people of Scotland place on human rights.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said the First Minister would meet senior Chinese government representatives to “discuss the importance of equality of opportunity and respect for human rights”.