Covenant ratification is next step for China

Just over a week ago, China signed the United Nations’ International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, but, like the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights that China signed last year, China has not ratified that treaty. Meanwhile, reports of human rights abuses continue to flow out of China. Yet the signing itself, coupled with recent summit meetings between Chinese President Jiang Zeming, President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, offers considerable hope for a country with an atrocious human rights record.
However, not everyone is convinced of China’s sincerity. The Freedom House, which promotes liberty and democracy internationally, claims China is putting on a show, signing the covenant with one hand while holding hundreds of Chinese Christians in penal colonies and restricting them from practicing their faith with the other. The New York-based Human Rights Watch goes further, saying China remains in violation of nearly every article of the covenant. While the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy only welcomed China’s signing of the covenant with reservation, it maintains that China is dodging its negative human rights record by superficially responding to international pressure.
These claims are certainly not foundationless. Despite signing the covenant, China is attempting to adapt the agreement to its own national condition, according to Zhu Muzhi, president of the Chinese Society for Studies of Human Rights. China did not draft the covenant; it merely signed it. As it stands, the treaty does not consider the unique characteristics of Chinese culture that set the world’s largest remaining communist state apart from other signatories, argue Chinese authorities.
Such a position is neither threatening nor unusual, as all nations that sign the covenant have the right to ratify it. Indeed, the United States signed the treaty in 1977, but the U.S. Congress did not ratify it until 1992. China’s particular reservations with the covenant have not been specifically spelled out, and international pressures are likely to suppress any substantive alterations to articles impeding China’s ratification of the document. A backlash from the U.N. Human Rights Committee is inevitable if China attempts to interpret the covenant too broadly.
Despite these reservations and challenges, most human rights watchdogs are welcoming the signing of the covenant by the National People’s Congress as a demonstration of a move toward the freedoms of expression, religion and assembly. Combined with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights demonstrates China coming significantly closer to compliance with the U.N. Human Rights Commission.
Yet the commission can only monitor compliance after the covenant has been ratified. Until compliance can be verified, the world community is justified in cautiously dealing with China, while also maintaining hope that things are changing. Only China can take the final step into a more peaceful, humane world by quickly ratifying the treaty.