- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 22, 2000

BEIJING The United Nations' top human-rights official and senior Chinese leaders differed publicly yesterday over civil liberties, a day after signing an agreement to cooperate on improving Beijing's rights protections.

An exchange at a conference on economic rights underscored the differing approaches between China and the United Nations despite their agreement Monday to cooperate.

Opening the conference, Communist Party Politburo member Li Tieying insisted human rights were relative, an argument the party leadership has long used to give economic development priority over rights.

"Each country and each ethnicity has the right to determine its own system for protecting human rights based on its own special conditions," Mr. Li said.

When her turn came to speak, Mary Robinson, U.N. high commissioner for human rights, urged China to accept "the universality of human rights" a concept underpinning two U.N. rights treaties that Beijing has signed but not ratified.

President Jiang Zemin echoed Mr. Li's argument when he met with Mrs. Robinson, telling her China has "its own way of promoting and protecting human rights," the official Xinhua News Agency reported.

Moving Beijing toward implementing the two treaties one on economic, social and cultural rights, the other on civil and political rights was a key goal of the new agreement, which rights groups immediately criticized as ineffective.

Under the memorandum signed by Mrs. Robinson and Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wang Guangya, China agreed to U.N.-sponsored seminars on reforming its police, court and labor camp systems. The first meeting, set for February, will touch on police powers to send suspects to forced-labor camps for up to three years without trial.

Mrs. Robinson hailed the agreement as nudging China closer to standards set out in the two rights pacts. But rights groups faulted the agreement for doing no more than calling for workshops and not committing China to change.

"China could use this pretense of cooperation to muzzle U.N. monitoring procedures and public criticism of its human-rights situation," New York-based Human Rights in China said in a statement.

Mrs. Robinson conceded that the agreement "won't change everything overnight" but said criticism should be mixed with efforts to help China implement reforms needed for ratification of the two rights pacts.

During an 80-minute meeting with Mr. Jiang, she also raised concerns over China's treatment of Tibetans and of the banned Falun Gong sect.

In another sign of continued obstacles, Mrs. Robinson said she inconclusively pressed Chinese leaders during her two-day visit to allow unfettered access by a U.N. special monitor on torture. The monitor's planned visit last year was scotched after China put limits on his activities.

Although China is trying to make its police force more law-abiding, reports of torture and other abuses persist. A rights group reported yesterday that two more Falun Gong members died in custody, raising the death toll among followers in the 16-month-old crackdown to at least 70.

Yang Guijun died Oct. 15 in Shandong province after a weeklong hunger strike to protest beatings, and Li Wenrui, a trade official from the northeastern city of Harbin, died Nov. 9 in Beijing in what police called a suicide, the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy reported.

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