The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson's visits to China over the past two years is a reflection of the increasing importance the Government places on human rights and also of the progress that China has made in recent years in widening the personal freedoms that its citizens enjoy.
But human rights still remains China's Achilles heel, the one issue that can impede its march to becoming a leading world power. In today's world, there are certain international norms governing relations between governments and citizens to which all nations must adhere to be globally respected.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, of which China is a signatory, lists these norms. This stirring document, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1966, sets out the ideal of a society of 'free human beings enjoying civil and political freedom and freedom from fear and want', and points out that such a society can be created only if 'conditions are created whereby everyone may enjoy his civil and political rights as well as his economic and social rights'.
The civil and political rights that nations are obliged to provide their citizens include: freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment; freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention; equality before the law; the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; the right to hold opinions without interference; freedom of expression; freedom to disseminate and receive information and the right of peaceful assembly.
China signed this covenant on October 5, 1998, but has yet to ratify it. Its signature is an indication that it subscribes to the ideals and goals enshrined in the covenant. Putting them into practice is going to be as difficult as the economic modernisation programme, but it is a task that is every bit as important if China is to take its rightful place in the community of nations.