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WSJ: Holding China to Account


April 4, 2002

As riot police shut down workers' protests in northeast China, Beijing's diplomats in Geneva have little to worry about. As things now stand, they won't be forced to defend China's treatment of labor organizers, or its crackdown on pro-democracy activists, Tibetans or Internet users. Nor will there be any debate on China's human rights record at the annual meeting of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights now underway in Geneva -- unless the European Union, the U.S. and other key governments act quickly to push for a resolution on the issue.

While Chinese workers risk going to jail or being beaten for exercising their rights, European governments seem unwilling to risk alienating Beijing's leaders. And the U.S., without a seat on the commission this year, may prefer to let China off the hook and let the Europeans take the blame. This leaves the door open for China to claim a huge diplomatic victory.

Both European governments and the Bush administration clearly understand the scale and scope of China's human rights violations. The U.S. State Department's annual human rights survey, issued last month, documented China's widespread abuses. The report blasted Beijing for trying to "legitimize measures against Muslim Uighur activists under the antiterrorism umbrella (leading to) an intensification of a crackdown in the Xinjiang autonomous region."

On March 11, the EU's foreign ministers met in Brussels and expressed concern about the "lack of respect for human rights in China, including the freedoms of expression, religion and association." They also criticized the denial of religious and cultural rights in Tibet and Xinjiang and warned that China's "fight against terrorism should be pursued with full respect for human rights." But unless these strong words are backed up with equally strong action, China will have no incentive to take concrete steps to end these abuses.

There is a way forward. Unlike previous years, when the EU insisted on acting as a whole, the 15 foreign ministers of the member states have left it open to individual EU members to sponsor a resolution on China. They also agreed to "consider favorably" voting for such a resolution, if one is introduced. What is needed now is a clear decision by one European government to take the lead to introduce a resolution in time to build up support and gather other cosponsors. Even without a seat on the commission, the U.S. could lend its weight and diplomatic clout, as Sweden did in 2001. Though not a commission member last year, Sweden -- then holding the EU presidency -- worked tirelessly on behalf of various resolutions put forward by the EU in Geneva, including ones on difficult issues such as Iran and Chechnya.

The diplomatic wrangling in Geneva matters because the mere threat of a debate on its human rights record gives China an incentive to take some positive steps in response. For example, in recent years China has signed two U.N. human rights treaties and ratified one of them; signed a technical cooperation agreement with the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights and invited U.N. human rights experts to visit China and Tibet -- although it has so far failed to implement their recommendations.

The Geneva debate is especially important this year, since the political succession process is underway in China, leading to the Communist Party congress in the fall. China's successful integration into the World Trade Organization and the continuation of its economic reforms are in part dependent on the new leadership paying serious attention to the need for fundamental legal and judicial reform. Action at the U.N. forum is one way to signal the international community's interest in promoting such reforms.

Beijing's preoccupation with stability in the face of continued social and economic upheaval is fueling an increase in human rights violations. China has taken steps to limit free expression by arresting academics, and closing newspapers and magazines. Last month, an article exposing corruption at a government-supported charity was killed under pressure from official censors. Authorities have also continued their intense crackdown on Falun Gong and unofficial religious groups of all kinds.

Through the massive "Strike Hard" anti-crime campaign launched last April, security forces have conducted thousands of arbitrary arrests and summary executions. Efforts to organize independent trade unions have been crushed and stringent new regulations on Internet use came into effect last year, imposing strict censorship on bulletin board services and chat rooms.

There is still time to hold China to account for its international human rights obligations during this year's session of the commission -- but only if those governments anxious to court Beijing's support in the war against terror don't abandon their commitment to basic human rights principles.

Ms. Leicht is the director of the Brussels office and Mr. Jendrzejczyk is Washington director for Asia of Human Rights Watch.