U.N. human rights chief begins China mission

Copyright © 1998 Nando.net
Copyright © 1998 The Associated Press

BEIJING (September 7, 1998 8:25 p.m. EDT http://www.nandotimes.com) -- U.N. human rights chief Mary Robinson urged Chinese leaders Monday to sign a key human rights treaty and pledged to improve cooperation between her office and the Chinese government.

The cooperation agreement -- signed with Assistant Foreign Minister Wang Guangya -- offers China help, if requested, in developing plans to meet commitments under international treaties and the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights, held five years ago.

At the signing ceremony, Robinson described her trip -- the first-ever official mission to China by a U.N. high commissioner for human rights -- as "an opportunity to begin a serious process of cooperation." She said she hoped to work with the government to find "practical ways to promote and protect human rights."

Such careful talk is seen as crucial by Robinson and Chinese leaders to end the confrontation that has marked relations between her office and China for most of the past decade.

Speaking before an audience of legal experts, Robinson noted that China has made "important progress" in human rights. She urged Chinese leaders to provide a yardstick for future gains by signing the U.N. Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, something they pledged to do six months ago.

"I am very eager to know when China will sign" the covenant, Robinson said. She said the government assured her it would be signed by the end of November.

The covenant -- and another treaty China has signed but not ratified -- provide basic guarantees of such fundamental rights as free speech and assembly.

Although China's constitution gives citizens those rights, they are seldom protected in practice. Dissidents and their family members were hoping that Robinson's visit, which includes a trip to Tibet, might encourage improvements.

Two dissidents, Leng Wanbao and An Fuxing, used Robinson's arrival to apply for government permission to form a rights group, a Hong Kong-based dissident monitoring group reported. Registration is required by law, but routinely denied.

The Information Center of Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China said Monday that dissidents and families of imprisoned activists had entrusted it with open letters to pass on to her.

One of the letters, signed by 139 democracy campaigners, protested the sentencing of Zhao Changqing, a teacher in northern China's Shaanxi province who tried to run for local office, to three years in prison for disrupting social order.

Xu Hong of Shanghai wrote on behalf of her husband, Lin Hai, a software company director detained since March for giving 30,000 Chinese e-mail addresses to a dissident on-line magazine.

Others protested the right of police to send detainees to labor camps for up to four years without trial; the authorities' failure to let an activist facing a charge of subversion see a lawyer; and the government's refusal to let dissidents in exile return to China.

By RENEE SCHOOF, Associated Press Writer