Peking escapes censure from the UN

China is not under attack for human rights as it prepares for a new PM, writes Teresa Poole
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The Independent Online
FOR THE first time since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, China will not face a motion condemning the country's record at this year's United Nations Human Rights Commission. Washington announced at the weekend that, following in the footsteps of the European Union, the United States would not sponsor an anti-China resolution, citing recent improvements in human rights on the mainland.

"We made this decision because of the steps China has taken and the expectation of further progress," said a White House spokesman. It was Peking which last Thursday gave Washington the get-out clause it was seeking, by announcing that China intended to sign the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. "We welcome that step as representing China's formal commitment to those principles," the US spokesman added.

The reality was that the Geneva motion, which has never been passed, was dead in the water last year after France and Germany broke ranks with the EU consensus on China. After that split, there was no chance that the EU would back a joint motion at this week's annual gathering, and last month it duly backed off. This left Washington in the hot seat, having to decide whether to sponsor such a resolution in the run-up to President Bill Clinton's state visit to China, now planned for late June.

Human rights groups yesterday lambasted Washington's decision. "The United States is exaggerating the few positive developments in China during 1997 and using them as an excuse to avoid censure of China at the UN Commission on Human Rights," the US branch of Amnesty International said in a statement. "China must be held accountable for its record of gross [human rights] violations." However, it was not clear that another failed motion would have achieved any concrete results for human rights in China.

Last November, China released its most prominent political prisoner, Wei Jingsheng, and exiled him to the US.

Washington is privately hopeful that further releases could follow Mr Clinton's visit. But there has been no meaningful improvement in political freedoms on the mainland, and the Chinese government will be overjoyed that the annual Geneva ritual, which it hated, is now over. "Our decision does not mean that we accept China's human rights record as satisfactory. It is far from satisfactory and we will continue to advocate forcefully human rights issues both publicly and privately with the Chinese," the White House spokesman said.

The West will want to demonstrate that "constructive engagement" over human rights achieves more than confrontation. If Peking signs and ratifies the UN covenant, which covers freedom of expression and association, China will have to adhere to the reporting system enshrined in the process, a procedure which would provide another forum for public censure of the country's rights record.

However, ratifying the covenant could take years, and China will also be able to lodge "reservations" against certain sections.

For the time being, anyone who wants to challenge one-party rule in China must operate invisibly. In the first mainland interview by the newly formed underground China Democratic Justice Party, a 29-year-old member told Associated Press that the party wanted to be able to compete in elections and "let the people decide who rules". Comment, page 15