China visit sets UN chief a tough task

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THE United Nations' top human rights official flies into Peking today, the first such visit to China. Mary Robinson, who took over the UN job a year ago with the promise that she would "stand up to bullies", is likely to find the nine-day trip her most challenging yet.

Even before leaving Geneva, the former Irish president was playing down what she could achieve. She hoped to "interact as far as possible with the civil society in China" but warned against having "unreal expectations", noting that her visit could not address all the "issues of concern".

On previous foreign visits, Mrs Robinson has proved herself ready to ruffle diplomatic feathers and speak her mind on human rights abuses - outspokenness for which China's tolerance is usually low.

Rwanda said Mrs Robinson would not be welcome back after a December visit when she said its human rights situation was "bleak". The following month in Cambodia, the first prime minister, Ung Huot, told her: "Madam, you are coming to work on the human rights issue. It does not mean you have the right to control us," after she criticised rights abuses.

In China the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights will have plenty to talk about if she chooses, from the widespread use of capital punishment, to the 230,000 people currently sentenced without a trial to so-called "re-education through labour", as well as the 2,000 people serving jail terms for "counter-revolutionary" crimes.

She will meet government officials, law-makers, women's groups and "representatives of civil society". A two-day visit to Tibet, invaded and absorbed by China in 1950, is also scheduled for this week.

One benchmark of a successful visit could be Peking's long-promised signing of the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which is meant to guarantee individual liberties. China also has yet to ratify the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which is before its National People's Congress. Such covenants include a requirement for regular reporting and would provide a mech- anism for monitoring human rights in China.

One of the most difficult decisions for Mrs Robinson is whether to attempt direct contact with political opponents inside the country. Any meetings with mainland dissidents will infuriate her government hosts and could also endanger those she meets.

A letter to Mrs Robinson last week, signed by 56 dissidents from 16 cities and provinces, told her: "We appreciate you will have a busy schedule, but would like you to choose a few representatives of pro-democracy activists to meet." Ignoring those whom she is supposedly trying to help could undermine the credibility of her trip.

Mrs Robinson shares the problem faced by every official visitor to China in that everything she sees will be carefully controlled.

This week she will make a two-day side-trip to Tibet, but it will be far too dangerous for any critics of China's behaviour in the Himalayan region to try to meet her. She is also likely to visit a prison, but it will be one of China's choosing. A European Union inspection earlier this year of a prison just outside Peking, for instance, found goldfish bowls and potted plants in the cells - hardly the average Chinese jail.

The Chinese government has also imposed tight restrictions for media coverage of the visit. China's own media will present the visit in a favourable light, if at all, but Mrs Robinson is intent on giving it a high profile within the country. "One of my very clear objectives ... is that the visit will be known about throughout China," she said.