Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS: What Really Brought Jiang Zemin to Latin America?

Marwaan Macan-Markar

MEXICO CITY, Apr 13 2001 (IPS) - When Chinese President Jiang Zemin began his current tour through Latin America on Apr. 4, strengthening trade and diplomatic ties between China and the six nations on his schedule were billed as the main reasons for bringing him to the region.

However, a leading human rights organisation implies that there was another motive for Jiang’s passage through Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Venezuela and Cuba this April. The timing of such a visit and the countries on his itinerary are revealing in this regard, says the New York City-based Human Rights Watch (HRW).

For HRW, Jiang’s two-week tour of the region was part of the Chinese government’s strategy to win support from Latin American nations to quash any resolutions condemning its human rights record at the annual sessions of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights being held in Geneva since Mar. 19.

“China’s rights record is expected to be discussed later this month,” stated HRW in a statement released this week. “Of the six countries on President Jiang Zemin’s current itinerary, all but Chile are members of the current Commission.”

It is not the first time China has tried this strategy. In 1995, for instance, senior Chinese officials stopped over at a number of Latin American nations and Premier Li Peng visited Peru and Mexico.

“Before the 1997 Commission, Li Peng visited two key Commission countries, Brazil and Chile, and China’s senior trade official, Wu Yi, visited six Latin American countries,” reveals HRW.

And judging by past records, these manoeuvres have paid dividends. “China has succeeded through intense lobbying to block any criticism against its human rights record,” affirms T. Kumar, advocacy director for Asia at the US branch of Amnesty International (AI), the global human rights lobby.

What have helped the Chinese, on the one hand, are the poor human rights records among some of the countries that make-up the 53-member commission, says Kumar. “Many of them do not want to be scrutinised and condemned by the Commission, so they back China’s drive.”

On the other hand, China has also benefited from its standing among many countries in the developing world. “Asian countries will not cross its path due to regional affiliations and African nations will toe the line due to economic and other ties with China,” adds Kumar.

China is not alone in its attempt at damage control. Countries like Iraq and Cuba have “invested hugely in lobbying efforts” to counter criticism of their human rights records, asserts Sidney Jones, director of HRW’s Asia division. “For years, Indonesia tried to keep out any discussion over the abuses in East Timor.”

Consequently, admits Jones, the countries that are often condemned in resolutions moved at the UN’s premier human rights body are small nations, since they do not have the clout to sway governments represented on the Commission to block criticisms through such measures as “no action motions”. Typical examples being the regular censure of countries with such notorious human rights records as Burma and Afghanistan.

But for human rights activists like Jones, that trend is no reason to despair, particularly so after the Commission broke new ground last year during its 56th session. For the first time since its creation some 50 years ago, the it issued its first formal criticism of a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Russia.

The Commission adopted a resolution condemning the Russian government for a range of human rights violations in Chechnya. The resolution called on Russia to establish, “according to recognised international standards”, a national commission of inquiry. It also called for human rights specialists of the Commission to visit Chechnya and report to both the Commission and the UN General Assembly.

And on Thursday, there was further evidence that Russia will once again be censured this year. A resolution introduced by the European Union has condemned Russia for “its use of disproportionate force and serious human rights violations” in Chechnya.

“The Commissions annual sessions are very important despite being heavily politicised,” says Jones. “Not only does it serve as a useful benchmark on the state of human rights globally, but it helps us to focus on pressing issues.”

What is more, confirms Jones, the intense lobbying by the worst offenders of human rights during these annual sessions also implies the attitude countries display towards the Commission. “These sessions always produce an interesting political dynamic among countries with notorious records.”

Such behaviour is revealing, asserts Kumar. “To be condemned by this multilateral UN body will mean a loss of face, it is embarrassing. It does not sit well with countries to be criticised by the UN, for it can lead to negative consequences on other fronts, like aid or trade.”

This is what the Chinese government is seeking to avoid, despite the human rights situation in that Asian nation “having deteriorated” over the last few years, says Kumar.

And it is not only HRW and AI that have levelled such charges against China. The Washington D.C.-based Freedom Forum also added its voice at the current sessions of the Commission by identifying rights abuses in China.

In a special report released this month for the Geneva meeting, Freedom Forum identified abuses committed by the Chinese government, enough for it to be included in its list of the ‘World’s Most Repressive Regimes’. The other countries on this list are Afghanistan, Burma, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria and Turkmenistan.

Regards China, Freedom Forum told the Commission that repression has been directed against a broad range of groups and individuals in China, including pro-democracy advocates, environmental activists, those who speak up for workers’ rights, members of unregistered religious groups and the people of Tibet.

And typical of such abuse, charges Freedom Forum, is the Chinese government’s ongoing crackdown, where it “continues to employ the inhuman institution of re-education through labour, an arbitrary form of administrative detention that suspends any due process rights”.

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