Changes on rights, but more work to do

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 September, 2005, 12:00am

After 21/2 decades of the most dramatic economic growth ever experienced by the civilised world, China's leaders are gradually coming to terms with their achievements. The process is uneven, sometimes painful, and not always as outside observers would like it, but change is nonetheless taking place.

In essence, that was the observation of the United Nations' foremost human rights envoy, Louise Arbour, who left Beijing on Friday after a five-day visit. She was not wholly happy with what she saw, but was nonetheless hopeful that the central government would embrace, sooner rather than later, the commitments it has said it is willing to undertake.

Ms Arbour was most critical of comments by officials that although the country had signed and intended to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), they believed each nation should be allowed to adopt its own approach to dealing with human rights. That, she declared, was wrong; no country could ignore international standards in dealing with the issue.

But the UN high commissioner for human rights believed the stage was set 'for expecting more than modest progress in the coming years'.

Beijing wants to use the time before ratification to bring legislation and practice into line with the covenant's requirements, which include detailed provisions on the right to a fair trial and limit the use of the death penalty to only the most serious crimes.

The mainland's signing of the pact in 1998 was a declaration of intent, but ratification still seems far off. Much work needs to be done to prepare for its introduction, especially from a legal standpoint.

During Ms Arbour's visit, Vice-Foreign Minister Shen Guofang signed an agreement aimed at helping China implement recommendations on economic, social and cultural rights and in moving towards ratification of the ICCPR. The Memorandum of Understanding included projects to help find alternative penalties to imprisonment, assist revision of laws and teach human rights in schools.

There was no express mention, however, of greater freedom of expression or assembly, areas that are tightly controlled by the government. There are also other concerns. Offices of a human rights group were raided, just as the visit began. And there are worries about fair trial standards in the cases of Hong Kong journalist Ching Cheong and a researcher for The New York Times who have been accused of spying.

Such sensitive matters aside, economic progress is rapidly integrating China with the rest of the world. That cannot be avoided and leaders recognise that their system must be brought into line with the nations they deal with economically, socially and politically.

But while legislation can be amended and agreements signed and ratified, there is a gap - sometimes noticeably wide - between approval and enforcement. Part of the problem is the difficulty faced by the central government in controlling provincial, county and municipal leaders.

Nonetheless, Beijing authorities recognise the need for change and are taking welcome steps. Their agreement with Ms Arbour is one such positive indication as is the upcoming visit of the UN's specialist on torture.

Like other developing nations, China considers economic, social and cultural, rights such as the right to food, education and work more urgent than civil and political rights. But each set of rights is equally important - and the point of signing an international covenant such as the ICCPR is to recognise universal standards.

Last week's agreement is encouraging, but concrete steps should - as promised - now be taken to further progress in this area. Such a course would be in keeping with the government's 'people-oriented' policies and do much to boost China's international standing.