Should you visit countries where human rights are violated?

Huamn rights and tourism

At parties and social events I often get drawn into arguments about whether one should visit a country that has recently been in the news for violating human rights, committing atrocities, abusing women, or basically being run by some corrupt dictatorship. Such abuses have sadly become more common in recent years, or so it seems, for much hangs on greater and more instant media coverage of global affairs these days. The initial tendency on hearing of some latest abuse is to condemn the practise and swear to forgo the pleasure of visiting the country in question. Such a reaction provides a strong emotional relief and sense of pride in taking a clear ethical stance.

While such a line of thought might be satisfying, and there have been frequent calls over the years for a more ethically minded foreign policy, nothing is as easy as it seems. We live in a closely interrelated world in which all our actions have consequences. It has wisely been said that people in glass houses should not throw stones. The scale of abuses may differ, but sadly, can we think of many countries these days – our exalted western democracies included – that are not guilty of some human rights violations?

I do not wish to descend into cynical relativism. We all know that the scale of abuses matters. I suppose that the argument becomes that each one of us has to make our own choices, as an individual. We should not leave such decisions to our governing elite or the advice of the foreign office; we need to take our own stand. I know that for me, there are several countries in the world that I will not visit until things change. These include places in the Middle and Far East.

Economic and cultural sanctions have worked, albeit slowly and up to a point, in the past, as the case of South Africa illustrates. But this is highly controversial. The arguments work both ways, for just as it is true that withdrawing and boycotting has an effect, so it is also true that striving to remain in contact may also have beneficial results, and certainly help to limit the suffering of broader communities in the countries concerned. It may be that only by maintaining some kind of contact that we can hope to have influence for the good.

Equally for many years Tourism Concern campaigned in support of the tourism boycott of Burma. By 2008, only a handful of UK tour operators visited Burma and most travel guides stopped producing Burma editions. However, we have now amended our stance in line with the updated NLD position, which believes small scale tourism can benefit local people. We still urge anyone visiting Burma to recognise that, despite Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest and the elections in 2010, true democratic reform remains a long way off. The same oppressive regime is in power. Many government figures and their cronies have stakes in the tourism industry, however the NLD would like visitors to come in solidarity.

The other issue with boycotts is that the very people who are being oppressed are also those most likely to suffer from the boycott – and of course if ‘good’ people boycott a destination that only increases the proportion of people who may not care about the local community, travelling there.

Sri Lanka is another destination where human rights abuses have occurred and the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice position is good advice echoes the Tourism Concern position:

“We are not opposed to people visiting Sri Lanka. Indeed, we think much good can come of such visits and that much harm could result if Sri Lanka is further isolated. But given the very disturbing human rights situation there, we don’t think anyone should make the decision to visit Sri Lanka lightly. We campaign to help tourists make an informed choice – to explain how their spending could contribute to a worsening of the human rights situation in Sri Lanka, or support human rights abusers, and to give advice about how they can avoid or mitigate against that impact.”

So to return to the party question, here is an answer answerless: we each have to make choices according to our own criteria and conscience. We have a responsibility to find out as much as we can and then make a decision, on balance, whether we are doing more good than harm. We will each draw the line differently, but hopefully, if we think about the issues carefully and take each case on its merits, we should be able to justify our decisions – to ourselves and others.

Helen Jennings