Leading Article: Nato's blunder may hurt human rights beyond Kosovo

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IN ANY war, the wrong targets are going to be hit and civilians are going to be killed, but in this war the misjudgements and mistakes just keep coming. "If there is one building in Belgrade we would like not to have hit, it was the Chinese embassy," a Foreign Office official admitted on Saturday. It is not simply a matter of faulty intelligence. The use of cluster bombs - which are designed to maximise casualties - in a residential area in Nis was a terrible mistake. The bombing of the Serbian television station likewise, and that was a quite deliberate target.

This was the biggest blunder yet, however, because it threatens the diplomatic house of cards so carefully constructed over the last week. The wooing of the Russians last week had a twin purpose: to sideline Slobodan Milosevic's only significant external ally, and to remove the Russian veto on the UN Security Council, thus allowing UN authorisation for ground forces in Kosovo. But that, in turn, depended on the Chinese veto staying out of the fray. The assumption was that China would not block Nato if Russia did not, but that was always a doubtful assessment, because the Chinese leadership has its own particular reasons for regarding as sacrosanct the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states. It is especially keen to keep the sensitive issue of Tibet out of the limelight.

Now there is no hope at all of Chinese acquiescence at the UN in the short term, as the government in Peking tries to ride the anger of its own people - not that there is anything especially oriental or inscrutable about it. Imagine the British (or American) response if China had accidentally killed three people in one of our embassies. All of Tony Blair's kowtowing to Zhu Rongji, the Chinese premier whom our Prime Minister described as a fellow moderniser, is unlikely to weigh much in the balance.

Earlier this year, Britain helped to block a resolution attacking China's human rights record at a United Nations conference in Geneva. And last week Downing Street made it clear that when Mr Blair met the Dalai Lama, they would be talking about reincarnation and Christian-Buddhist relations, and definitely not the "doctrine of international community", as outlined by the Prime Minister in an important speech in Chicago last month.

Funny that, because the parallels between the situation in Kosovo and that in Tibet are inescapable. Indeed, the case for intervening in Tibet is rather stronger. It was, unlike Kosovo, a sovereign nation, annexed in 1951. It does not contain religious sites of national significance to the Chinese. And its national leader has pursued a model campaign of non-violence in pursuit of independence.

Of course, it must be said that the Western failure to press the cause of Tibet in no way undermines the moral foundations of the attempt to halt "ethnic cleansing" in Yugoslavia. One of the most important sub- clauses of the Blair doctrine is the recognition that the failure to do good in one part of the world does not excuse inaction in another. "If we wanted to right every wrong that we see in the modern world then we would do little else than intervene in the affairs of other countries," as Mr Blair put it in Chicago. That is absolutely right, and the complaint from the likes of Harold Pinter that the West should not act to defend the Kosovar Albanians because it did nothing for the Kurds or the Rwandan Tutsis should be robustly rejected. But the sub-clause cannot be extended to the point where the West is selling out the rights of the Tibetans in order to keep China on board for UN action in Yugoslavia.

Mr Blair should have taken a more robust line on Tibet. He could have argued that a policy of pragmatic appeasement was more likely to produce results. Until now. The bombing of the Chinese embassy of Belgrade has not simply set back the cause in Kosovo: it threatens the cause of human rights in China and Tibet as well.