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China escapes UN censure on human rights

China escaped censure by the narrowest of margins in Geneva yesterday as the UN Human Rights Commission voted for the first time on the country's record, but Western backers of the motion said Peking could take no comfort from its narrow victory.

A draft resolution proposed by the European Union, with strong support from the US, was defeated by one vote as Russia switched sides. "It was never likely that Russia would support the motion, but there was a faint hope they might abstain," said a Western diplomat. "It was disappointing to have come so close, but China has been put on notice that its human rights record is coming under scrutiny, and that it cannot rely on procedural moves to escape."

For four consecutive years since 1991, China had succeeded in preventing critical resolutions going to the full Human Rights Commission for a vote. This year, however, a "no action" motion to shelve the resolution failed, setting off furious lobbying as the EU and the US sought Third World support. They failed because Russia and Peru agreed to the resolution being debated, but then voted against it.

Robbie Barnett, a leading British activist on human rights in China, said the significance of Peking's narrow escape was that its claim to be a leader of the Third World had lost validity. "This is much more important to the Chinese authorities than any criticism over human rights," he said. "Previously they would have expected to have defeated such a motion easily."

The US and EU nations, anxious to prove they have not abandoned pressure on China over human rights since "delinking" the issue from trade, threw more effort into lobbying than in previous years. Peking's claim that it was the victim of a "political conspiracy" was weakened by its support for a Cuban resolution condemning racism in the US.

John Shattuck, US Assistant Secretary of State for Humanitarian Affairs, said: "This year for the first time the UN Human Rights Commission has made clear that the Universal Declaration on Human Rights cannot be defeated by procedural manoeuvring and that no country, however large, can avoid scrutiny of its human rights record."