Priority Questions. - Human Rights in China.

Gay Mitchell


13 Mr. G. Mitchell asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs his views on human rights in China following his recent visit there. [8232/98]

My official visit to the People's Republic of China from 24 to 28 February enabled me discuss with the Chinese leadership a wide range of issues concerning both bilateral relations and international developments. In the course of my visit I had extensive discussions with the then Prime Minister, Mr. Li Peng, and the then Foreign Minister, Mr. Qian Qichen. I also met four vice-Ministers responsible for trade and industry.

The visit, which took place on the eve of a major congress in China and in the immediate aftermath of a decision by the EU Council of Ministers to increase dialogue with China and intensify efforts to improve human rights in that country, provided the opportunity for very useful exchanges of views as well as achieving concrete results.

In all my discussions the issue of human rights figured prominently and I made clear our concerns on this score. I informed the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister of the most recent developments in the EU, especially with regard to the decision of the Council of Ministers not to table a draft resolution on China at this year's session of the Commission on Human Rights in Geneva.

Much still remains to be achieved in the context of human rights in China. Several developments have taken place over the past year which have given rise to hopes for improvement. Among the positive steps which have been taken by the Chinese authorities are: resumption of the EU-China human rights dialogue — since last October three substantive meetings between the two sides have taken place and a package of practical measures to assist the development of human rights in China is being put together in this context; the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, has been formally invited to visit China and I understand that she will be doing so in September; the prominent political dissident, Wei Jingsheng, was released from prison last November; the Chinese authorities last year granted access to the UN working group on arbitrary detention; China has signed the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and has just recently indicated its intention to sign the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Furthermore, China has agreed to the holding of the first ever EU-China summit meeting which is due to take place in London tomorrow. I understand that the question of human rights in China will be a significant issue at that meeting.

It is evident that, taken together, these changes reflect a greater willingness on the part of China to maintain a dialogue on human rights issues. However, the fact that Ireland and other states will not be tabling a resolution on China at this year's session of the Commission on Human Rights in Geneva does not preclude us from doing so next year if circumstances change.

Deputies may wish to be aware that my meeting on 25 February with the then Foreign Minister, Mr. Qian Qichen, was perhaps the most substantive during my official visit to China. In addition to the question of human rights, I raised a wide range of issues with him including trade relations, Hong Kong, the Asian financial crisis, prospects for the Asia-Europe Meeting, or ASEM, which will take place in London next week, the situation in the Korean peninsula and Tibet. I had detailed talks on the question of Tibet and the Foreign Minister did not resile from my robust intervention. I furthermore took the opportunity to brief him on the situation in Northern Ireland. Some of the issues on which progress has been made will be the subject of further discussions at a meeting in London later this week between the Taoiseach and the new Chinese Prime Minister.

Will the Minister confirm that the new view of the EU General Affairs Council is that the best way of advancing the cause of human rights in the People's Republic of China is not to move the annual human rights motion at the UN but to pursue the route outlined? Will the Minister say on what premise such a sea change is based? Why do the Minister and the other Ministers of the General Affairs Council believe this new approach will be more beneficial in terms of improving human rights in China? Has the decision more to do with the breakdown in solidarity and the fact that some member states saw a greater advantage in pursuing their trade needs than in pursuing human rights in the traditional manner?

The main reason for us adopting this position in relation to the resolution was outlined in my response to the question. As far the Government is concerned there has been no policy change in relation to human rights in China. Our objective remains that of highlighting the abuse of human rights where it occurs and to take appropriate action on a bilateral basis and at multilateral fora such as the UN Commission for Human Rights in Geneva to secure improvements.

Last year no draft resolution was put forward by the EU, although Ireland cosponsored one with some of our partners. We made it clear that our approach to a possible draft resolution at this year's session was dependent on positive action by China in a number of specific areas. My reply outlined the action to date taken by China in the light of which we do not intend cosponsoring a draft resolution this year. Our EU partners are adopting a similar position. However, this does not preclude us from doing so next year if circumstances change. I think this is the proper approach in the context of what myself and others seek to achieve in China and of megaphone diplomacy. The Chinese authorities should be given an opportunity to take action. We can also see whether some actions already taken are empty gestures or movements in the right direction in the context of human rights.

We are not happy with the regrettable human rights situation in China. The Chinese authorities should be given an opportunity to improve human rights in the context of what they are doing, the manner in which they have received people such as myself and the manner in which they are prepared to explore ways of improving such rights. This does not suggest our policy has changed. If the position in China does not improve we will revisit the matter next year.

Is it not true that Denmark, which moved the motion, was treated harshly in terms of trade contracts which they had with China and that this buckled the knees of other Foreign Ministers who felt that if they did not fall in line their countries would be treated in a similar manner? Will the Minister ensure that the General Affairs Council keeps this matter under review and takes the most effective course of advocating proper standards of human rights in China, irrespective of the threats made against EU member states regarding trade?

I strongly support the Deputy's point of view. He is correct and I promise that as long as I am at the General Affairs Council I will keep the matter under constant observation. I made a number of strong interventions on that subject and other issues concerning human rights at the Council. Human rights abuses do not only relate to China. Human rights abuses have become almost endemic throughout what might be described as the "civilised world", for want of a better description.

As the time for priority questions has expired, Question No. 14 will be taken in ordinary Question Time.