Guest blog by Becky Rogerson,
CEO of My Sisters Place
I was somewhat surprised to receive an email from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) a couple of weeks ago inviting me to join the 24th UK Human Rights dialogue in Beijing. The theme for this year is women’s rights, and as China is in the process of implementing a new ‘Anti-Domestic Violence’ Law, the UK Government were seeking a best practice example of service delivery to share - and came to Middlesbrough to find it.
Arrangements were tight, with barely a week to secure all the necessary security and visa clearance but I managed to board a plane on Sunday afternoon to travel the 10.000 miles to Beijing. The delegation flying from the UK included four leads from Asia Pacific department of the FCO, Ministry of Justice, Home Office, myself and Sam Smethers, CEO of the Fawcett Society in London. We joined four Political Officers from the British Embassy Beijing and were ‘matched’ with a similar delegation representing China.
Day 1: The ‘Dialogue’
The programme was intense to say the least, if I had any views about leisurely lunches and pre-dinner drinks in the bar, any such dreams were erased. Having travelled for 25 hours I arrived to a 5 minute turnaround for a final briefing and dinner. Breakfast at 6.00 am, 7.00 am pick up the Embassy, 8.00 transport to the China Government Conference Centre, 9.00 start 6.00 pm finish (for me, though the FCO staff remained in talks until midnight).
The setting was sumptuous, the food abundant, but the ‘dialogue’ was brutal; a steep learning curve and I left with a huge respect for ‘diplomatic talks’ and the skill set required.
Main dialogue topics were submitted prior to the meeting, and included human rights concerns raised by the UK in relation to Tibet, Modern Slavery, Refugees, and a number of individual ‘cases of concern’. I presented in a parallel workshop on the importance of the relationship between criminal justice and civil society. One of the lively discussion points related to the age of what are known as ‘left over women’, these are women who have not fulfilled their responsibility as wives and mothers by the age of 27 years – the age has just been officially reduced to 25 years of age in an attempt to address the issue of an ageing population and a gender in-balance created by the one child policy (now reversed) - an interesting backdrop to a discussion on women’s rights.
Day 2: Visits and questions
A visit to the women’s prison in Beijing, followed by a visit to the Women’s University. The prison visit was particularly interesting to the western ear – I say ear, as we failed to see any prisoners and the areas we were shown appeared to ‘lack authenticity’. The discussions with staff over lunch however offered some insight to the work and ethical agenda within China’s prisons. The Women’s University was a more relaxed visit, and we struck up a good relationship with reciprocal invitations and promises to keep in touch.
All in all a fascinating experience and a unique insight to the challenges the UK faces in working with China. The domestic violence dialogue was well received and reported as being ‘useful’ which I understand is praise indeed given the challenging nature of the agenda. My sincere thanks to the FCO staff for great briefings and guidance on diplomacy. I hope we managed to sow a few seeds to take forward in the future.