UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson continued to voice concern over China's dismal human rights record, but praised an agreement Monday by Beijing to expand dialogue with the UN as "a very significant move."
Following talks with China's Vice Foreign Minister Wang Guangya, Robinson signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on technical cooperation designed to help China comply with two international human rights covenants that Beijing has signed but not ratified.
"This is a very significant move and I would like to acknowledge it as such, it is a very positive step and I believe we can build on this cooperation to encourage ratification on the two covenants," she said.
China has signed the UN Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Convenant on Political and Civil Rights, but has yet to ratify them. President Jiang Zemin earlier this year vowed the former covenant would be ratified by the year's end.
Robinson was slated to meet with Vice Premier Qian Qichen later Monday and with Jiang on Tuesday when they would hold the first seminar under the MOU.
Over the last few years, Robinson said, China had made no progress in the areas of freedom of expression, association and religious belief and cited rights concerns voiced by members of the Falungong spiritual group which China banned in July 1999.
"Last March, I noted progress in certain areas and I identified three areas where there was in my view no progress and indeed potentially stepping back; in freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of religious belief," she told journalists.
"These remain areas of concern and I hope to discuss them further with the vice minister," she said.
Although the MOU had four areas of focus, including human rights education, punishment for minor crimes, training of police and economic and cultural rights, Robinson said she would continue to press the Chinese government on overall rights issues.
"The human rights mechanisms (covenants) do deal with the issues of freedom of expression and association and the kinds of urgent appeals made by a large number of members of the Falungong and in that capacity I will continue to dialogue on those issues," she said.
She would also continue to urge the Chinese government to accept the visit of UN reporters who would make independent studies on China's human rights situation, in particular UN special reporter on torture Sir Nigel Rodley whose scheduled visit this year was cancelled.
Robinson's office has long voiced concerns over conditions in Chinese prisons, particularly widespread torture and abuse as well as China's system of arbitrarily detaining citizens without judicial procedures.
China's top legislator Li Peng on Monday urged police and judiciary personnel to raise their awareness about China's criminal procedure law and root out problems such as detaining suspects for excessive periods of time and inquisition by torture, according to the official Xinhua news agency.
It is unclear whether Li's statements were timed to coincide with Robinson's visit.
For China's part, Vice Minister Wang pledged to further deepen human rights discussions with the UN, but maintained that as a developing country, China would only develop those rights that suited its historic situation.
"As is known to all, the Chinese government has always given much importance to the promotion and protection of human rights," Wang said.
"It has been a consistent position of the Chinese government to advocate international cooperation in the area of human rights through dialogue and exchanges," he said.
Sophia Woodman, at the New York-based Human Rights in China, however, strongly disagreed with Wang, saying that recommendations by committees on torture and discrimination against women, under the UN Human Rights Commission had long been ignored by Beijing.
"The two committees during the last two years have considered reports from China and made specific recommendations,... we haven't seen that there has been any effort by the Chinese government to deal with these concerns," Woodman told AFP -- BEIJING (AFP)
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