U.S. Backs Off China Critique

The United States will not propose a U.N. resolution critical of China's human rights policy this year because of recent concrete steps by Beijing in the treatment of political prisoners and protection of religious services, U.S. officials said Thursday.

The decision removes one of the major flash points of the annual six-week session of the 53-nation U.N. Human Rights Commission, which began Monday.

State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said China had taken "some important and significant steps" to improve conditions, including freeing some political prisoners, according them legal rights equal to other prisoners and respecting church services in people's homes.

Ereli announced the decision three weeks after the administration accused China in an annual human rights report of a range of violations. He said the decision was made without regard to the imminent visit of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Beijing.

The administration made a similar decision not to introduce a critical resolution at the U.N. conference in Geneva two years ago. Ereli did indicate that a U.S. resolution would be introduced criticizing the human rights situation in Cuba.

A U.S.-backed resolution to condemning the island's record is usually presented at every spring meeting in Geneva of the commission, which this year will run through April 22.

Testifying before Congress, Acting Assistant Secretary Michael Kozak said the new rights for political prisoners is "a gift that keeps on giving." He added, however, that overall, "it's a poor human rights situation."

Rep. Christopher Smith questioned the administration's decision. "We are getting progress, but it is very limited. There are thousands of political prisoners," he said in an interview.

Recently, the State Department assailed China's record on human rights in its report, prompting Beijing to issue a report denouncing the United States for offenses ranging from allowing crime and poverty at home to abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

U.S. attempts to criticize China have frequently been one of the main sources of tension at the human rights commission's annual session, but Beijing has succeeded in recent years in mustering enough support among developing countries to avoid censure.

In October, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell said the United States and China had agreed to hold talks aimed at resuming their dialogue over human rights.

The communist nation broke off that dialogue in March 2004 after Washington sought a commission resolution criticizing Beijing's human rights record. China used a procedural maneuver to derail the U.S. proposal.

The United States decided not to bring a resolution on China in 2003 because it said it saw improvements in the world's most populous country. There also was no resolution the previous year when the United States was not a member of the commission.

Human rights groups have deplored the commission's inability to criticize China for a range of abuses, including treatment of Tibet.

The U.S. government also has complained about the makeup of the commission, noting that more than a third of the countries on the panel are led by undemocratic governments and two — Cuba and Zimbabwe — were among six countries named by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as "outposts of tyranny."

Commission members are chosen by regional groupings of nations.

Paula Dobriansky, U.S. undersecretary of state for global affairs, said it was up to democracies to take a more aggressive role in the commission.

"We need to put a stop to the trend of the world's worst human rights abusers securing membership on the commission to deflect criticism of their abuses at home," Dobriansky told the commission in the opening speech by the U.S. delegation.

But she said the United States opposes suggestions that the commission abandon the system in which the regional groups elect the members.

"We encourage and support more democracies to vie for commission membership," she said.

In 2003, the United States walked out of the commission's meeting to protest Cuba's re-election, which it called "an outrage." Russia, Saudi Arabia and several African countries with poor human rights records also won seats, and Libya chaired the commission that year.

Washington maintains a four-decades-old trade embargo against the island, with trade and travel restrictions being steadily tightened in recent years.

By Barry Schweid