The Search for Human Rights

By Danitz, Tiffany; Hickey, Jennifer G. | Insight on the News, May 11, 1998 | Go to article overview

The Search for Human Rights


Danitz, Tiffany, Hickey, Jennifer G., Insight on the News


Far from being seen as critical to foreign policy, human-rights issues often take a back seat to business and trade interests in U.S. dealings with other governments.

In June, Bill Clinton will become the first U.S. president to go to Beijing since the massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators there strained U.S.-Sino relations nearly a decade ago. The visit no doubt will be used by the Chinese government as an occasion to claim that Beijing's human-rights record has improved.

Nothing could be further from the truth, say human-rights experts.

"Conditions actually got worse when we delinked human rights and trade," Rep. Frank Wolf, a Virginia Republican, says of the administration's 1994 decision to ignore human-rights violations in the People's Republic of China. "There are more gulags in China than 10 to 15 years ago and more people in prison for religious persecution today. The Clinton administration really doesn't use the bully pulpit."

There is an annual debate about China's human-rights record at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights meeting in Geneva, for instance. This year Rep. Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican, won passage of a resolution in Congress urging the president to use the U.N. meeting as a forum to condemn China's human-rights violations.

At Geneva, the administration deferred to China's wishes. "China has been resisting vigorously every year this debate and now the administration has completely caved in," says Mike Jendrzejczyk, director of Asia Watch, a nongovernmental human-rights organization. He adds that ducking the debate was a deliberate move to downplay China's human-rights abuses prior to Clinton's planned visit.

The fear among human-rights activists is that the State Department is more concerned with assuring Clinton gets a good reception in China than it is with advancing human rights as part of the U.S. foreign-policy agenda. Wei Jingsheng, a leading advocate for Chinese democracy, told Congress that abdication by the president on this issue would sting dissidents in China. But the administration argues that engagement with China is better than isolation. Wei says the Chinese government already has isolated its people. He suggests that efforts in Geneva would have assured the activists that the United States has not abandoned them for the profits promised by the Chinese government.

"Of course, human rights take a back seat to trade," says G. Joseph Rees, the chief counsel for the House International Relations subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights. And anyone who follows the annual "most favored nation" trade-status debates on Capitol Hill realizes the powerful influence that certain big businesses have, and to what extent they have become advocates of Beijing.

State Department spokesman, James P. Rubin told reporters in mid-April: "There should be no doubt that the United States is a country that cares deeply about the human rights of citizens all over the world, spends enormous resources, occasionally even puts those views above narrow parochial concerns, which other countries rarely do. And so I think we stand second to none in caring about human rights."

But Jendrzejczyk calls U.S. pandering to Beijing in Geneva "the most obvious and dramatic signal of the administration's eagerness to downplay human rights in the overall relationship" with China. The veteran researcher explains that such appeasement has led Beijing to believe that with token human-rights concessions "as window dressing the [Clinton] administration will go for it."

China is just one example of the clash between human-rights activists and the coalition of business and the Clinton administration. Human rights remains a tenet of U.S. foreign policy but violators are not treated equally or consistently.

East Timor, for example, has the bad luck to be on the edge of the Indonesian archipelago.

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