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Australia supports China on the issue of Beijing's human rights' record

PETER CAVE: Australia has supported China and sided with Asia rather than the United States on the issue of Beijing's human rights record. Earlier this week, the US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, telephoned Australia's Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, and made clear Washington's disappointment that Australia would not co-sponsor a United Nations' resolution condemning China's record. But, despite the call from Washington, Mr Downer will not be reversing Australia's decision to drop its backing for the UN motion. Mr Downer's office has told AM this morning, the conversation was amicable and noted that the Albright call came four days after Canberra announced its intention. Australia's decision on the UN resolution follows a year in which the credentials in Asia of the Howard Government and Australia have been under siege. From Beijing, correspondent, John Shovelan reports that countries which avoid public criticism of China can expect to be rewarded.

JOHN SHOVELAN: Australia's support of China has created a rare split in the political alliance between the Government of Prime Minister Howard and the White House and, despite hollow denials by Government Ministers, the human rights dialogue between Canberra and Beijing was a result of Mr Howard's willingness to surrender Australia's historical policy position in Geneva. Ever since the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square, Australia has taken a leading role in seeking support for a resolution condemning China's human rights record, but during Mr Howard's recent visit, the Chinese Premier, Li Peng, and Chinese Government officials made it clear there could be no dialogue while Australia took the public path of condemning China at the annual UN Human Rights Commission's sessions.

Australian diplomats in China admit the trigger for last year's horror year in Sino-Australian relations began with Canberra's support for the 1996 resolution. The Chinese Government has adopted a successful strategy of rewarding countries which adopt a hushed behind-closed-door approach to human rights, with big contracts and greater access to its markets and a less prickly political relationship.

France, which led the European bloc opposing the resolution, is expected to be rewarded next month with billions of dollars worth of contracts for Airbus. In contrast, Denmark, which championed the resolution by sponsoring the moderately-worded motion, has had state visits suspended and, contrary to the position Beijing took with Australia, dialogue on human rights has also been suspended with the Danes. Holland, too, is being punished for supporting the Danes. The Dutch Economics Minister has been told he's no longer welcome to visit China in June. China sees red at criticism of its human rights record, viewing the treatment of its peoples as a purely internal affair. The United States weakened the chances of the resolution making it to the table for debate by delaying its support. Washington waited until Vice-President Gore had departed Beijing after his recent visit before announcing it would back the Danish move. The US spent the weekend lobbying for support, but both Australia and Japan, the White House's two strongest allies in the Asia-Pacific, turned the US down. John Shovelan, Beijing.

PETER CAVE: Well, just a short while ago, the White House said that it deeply regrets the successful manoeuvre by China in the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva to prevent a vote on the motion. The Executive Director of the US-based human rights group, Human Rights Watch, Sidney Jones, told our North America correspondent, Phillip Lasker, that Australia helped to undermine the UN body's credibility.

SIDNEY JONES: This is one of the very few multi-lateral forums left in which China's human rights record can be criticised, and the importance can be seen in the amount of time and resources that China put in to trying to ensure that this resolution never came to a vote. It's been going around the world, to Latin America, to Eastern Europe, to various places in Asia, with the specific intention to try and ensure that it is not stigmatised and that it can use this particular forum to declare victory over those who would try to expose its human rights practices to scrutiny.

PHILLIP LASKER: But isn't our Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, correct to some extent when he says that such resolutions aren't terribly valuable because similar resolutions in the past had always failed?

SIDNEY JONES: No, I think it's absolutely not the case, because I think if you look, for example, at resolutions on Indonesia that have taken place over the last several years, and even though they've been downgraded to something called the 'joint chairman statement', in fact it was those resolutions that got UN human rights monitors into East Timor. So even though they don't have any teeth, even though there's no way of enforcing the resolutions, they do provide an incredibly important standard against which government behaviour can be measured, and they can also lead to increased transparency and accountability on the part of government.

PHILLIP LASKER: But Australia may have got something out of its reluctance to condemn China. China, we're told, has agreed in principle to regular talks with Canberra on human rights. Aren't you heartened by that?

SIDNEY JONES: I'm not heartened in the slightest because all of the efforts that have been made by other countries to engage China in a human rights 'dialogue' - and I put the dialogue in quotation marks - have led to virtual monologues on the part of the country that's supposed to be in dialogue with China; that is, at no point has any concrete information been forthcoming from this dialogue that wasn't available from other sources. These dialogues have never led to increased access to Chinese prisons, for example, they have not led to releases of prisoners, they have not led to improved conditions inside China. It's very difficult to point to any meaningful results that these human rights dialogues have resulted in.

PETER CAVE: Sidney Jones, Executive Director of the US Human Rights Watch.