Washington, 19 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The failure of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights to condemn China for human rights violations highlights just how selective the international community now is in seeking to extend human rights protections.
And that development in turn both increases cynicism in many countries about human rights issues and underscores the difficulties all countries which do care about the fate of human rights face when they make the defense of these rights a foreign policy priority and attempt to extend those rights in other countries.
For the ninth time in as many years, China on Tuesday again escaped condemnation at the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva and will not face increased international scrutiny of its practices over the course of the next year.
On a procedural vote, 22 countries backed Beijing's demand for dropping a U.S.-sponsored resolution criticizing China for human rights abuses. Eighteen countries voted against China -- including the U.S., Canada, Japan, and seven European Union members -- while 12 countries abstained. The representative of Romania did not take part in the vote.
To the applause of many delegations, China's ambassador to the forum, Qiao Zhonhuai, celebrated his country's victory, arguing that the U.S. resolution was "an anti-China political farce directed by the United States alone."
The senior American official at the gathering, Assistant Secretary of State Harold Hongju Koh, tried to put the best face on the outcome. He said that Washington had introduced the resolution "to focus international attention on the marked deterioration in the human rights situation during the past year."
The New York-based Human Rights Watch issued a statement saying that the UN's "decision represents a sorry failure of political will. By turning a blind eye to China's worsening human rights record, the delegations in Geneva have given the wrong signal to Beijing's leaders."
But the Geneva vote sends three more messages that are likely to be received by leaders around the world.
First, most countries are unwilling to criticize large, powerful and economically important states for human rights abuses, a pattern that inevitably increases cynicism about human rights as an agenda.
Had the object of the American-sponsored resolution been a small or weak country, most of the governments represented in Geneva would have voted to impose enhanced UN supervision.
But because the country involved was China, Beijing could count on both its traditional allies such as the Russian Federation and Cuba as well as its trading partners, India, Indonesia and Pakistan, and others opposed to American influence to back it on this resolution.
Second, even those countries prepared to lodge protests about human rights violations are unwilling or unable to back up their rhetorical charges with any substantive punishments of the violators.
Thus, the Chinese delegation in Geneva undoubtedly took some pleasure in the fact that even as the U.S. government was pushing for a resolution condemning Beijing for violating civil, religious, and minority rights, the administration was also seeking Congressional approval for permanent normal trade relations with China.
And third, ever more governments appear to be backing away from making the defense of human rights a central element of their foreign policies across the board. That change reflects both difficulties these governments have had in extending human rights and their own unwillingness to impose sanctions. And now some in the West are openly calling for a reconsideration of the defense of human rights as a key foreign policy goal.
The vote in Geneva will only expand that debate still further. But as it goes on, ever more people in China and in many other countries are likely to suffer increasingly severe violations of their human rights.
To the extent that happens, the world will again be divided, no longer between communism and democracy but rather between those countries which respect human rights and those which do not. That division may prove just as fateful for the future as the earlier division did for the past.