United Nations

Protecting rights

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 April, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 April, 1997, 12:00am

Among the more encouraging events on the world stage in recent months is China's indication that it will sign the key United Nations International Covenant on Economic, Social and Political Rights (ICESPR) some time this year.

This covenant is not as significant as the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the most important UN document which protected the territory's liberties under British sovereignty. But its signature would be a notable advance in China's political development. It remains unclear whether China will also sign the protocol by which governments agree to allow their citizens the right to make complaints against them. Britain was not a signatory to the protocol because Britons can take their government to the European Court for civil or human rights abuses.

What counts in the human rights arena is how such agreements are implemented and how reports are made to the UN. That we cannot know until the process gets under way, but it is clear that the act of signing places a government under an obligation to abide fully by the covenant. If it fails to do so, it must answer to the UN, which also weighs evidence submitted by non-governmental organisations.

This is the vital difference between the resolution which Denmark filed this week denouncing Chinese human rights abuses, and the circumstances which would apply if China fails to honour the ICESPR covenant.

The Danish resolution was essentially political, intended to raise debate on China's record. That is why the Foreign Ministry in Beijing was able to respond by warning about the consequences of the action.

Complaints against a signatory to the covenants have a legal context. Any government which defaults is required to answer for it, and improve its record. For example, the right of all children to protection because of their status as a minor is laid down. If a signatory's legal code does not cover this, it must draft laws to bring it into line.

When it does sign the first convention, China will be taking a significant step. If it subsequently also adheres to the ICCPR, Hong Kong will - in international terms - be accorded the human rights guarantees it has enjoyed for over 20 years.