Britain Vacillating on Resolution Slamming Chinese Rights Record

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:07 PM EDT

London ( -China responded angrily over the weekend to American allegations of human rights abuses, as Britain continued to vacillate over whether or not to back a US condemnation of Beijing at a UN conference next month.

Foreign Secretary Robin Cook has yet to make a decision on whether Britain will support a US resolution at the Human Rights Commission conference in Geneva, condemning China's human rights record.

The subject is likely to be discussed when EU officials hold talks with U.S. representatives in Washington on Wednesday.

Until 1997, the leading EU governments regularly co-sponsored such resolutions.

But Western unity over China's record has fragmented, with France, Germany and Britain shifting towards a policy of "dialogue," in which human rights concerns are usually raised by junior officials out of the spotlight, while the expansion of commercial ties are explored.

Britain exports about $1.67 billion worth of goods to China each year.

The Labor government, which announced at its onset it would pursue an "ethical" foreign policy, says the dialogue is working, and points to Beijing's recent agreement to discuss human rights issues with the EU.

But human rights groups are critical of British and EU government policy toward China, saying the situation has worsened over the past year.

The assessment was echoed last week in the State Department's 1999 report on global human rights, which said the situation in China had "deteriorated markedly throughout the year, as the government intensified efforts to suppress dissent."

The report alleged torture, arbitrary detention, and religious and political persecution was continuing.

At a briefing coinciding with the report's release, Harold Hongju Koh - the Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor -- said the U.S. plan to once again introduce a resolution in Geneva "fits within our overall strategy of engaging China on a principled, purposeful basis on all issues and bringing China into the international system to abide by international rules in all appropriate forums, including human rights, trade, and nonproliferation."

Addressing the same briefing, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright defended the administration's efforts to bring China into the World Trade Organization.

"Critics suggest that U.S. concerns about China's human rights record should be expressed by denying normal relations on trade," she said. "The administration believes that approach would actually undercut the positive forces at work in China."

Albright noted that some Chinese pro-democracy leaders had "expressed strong support for the WTO agreement on human rights grounds."

China's response to the U.S. report came in the form of a lengthy article saying the U.S. was a dangerous country with too many guns, too many people in prison, and suffering from the "chronic illnesses" of racism and sexism.

"The American government needs to keep an eye on its own human rights problems, mind its own business and stop interfering in the internal affairs of other countries by utilizing the human rights question," said the report, carried by the official Xinhua news agency.

Meanwhile the London-based group Free Tibet has launched a campaign to pressure Britain and the EU to support anti-China resolutions in Geneva.

"China has effectively blackmailed western governments by threatening to withdraw from dialogue should there be any renewal of the use of resolutions at the UN Commission for Human Rights and has therefore escaped substantive international censure for the worst human rights violations since Tiananmen Square," the organization said in a statement.

The Conservative Party's spokesman on foreign affairs, John Maples, recently criticized Cook for a policy he said was in a "complete shambles."

Maples cited Cook's refusal to back a resolution condemning China during last year's Human Rights Commission gathering, his refusal (later reversed) to meet Chinese dissident leader Wei Jingsheng, and the government's handling of public dissent during an official visit to Britain late last year by President Jiang Zemin.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow