11/04/2006, 00.00
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China, Africa should talk human rights, not just trade

As the summit between China and African countries unfolds, Human Rights Watch has called attention to human rights and warned that mutual trade links should not inflict harm on the rights of entire peoples.

Beijing (AsiaNews/HRW) – The third Forum on China-Africa Cooperation started today. The leaders of 48 African countries have arrived to Beijing, which is well guarded by police for the event. At the opening of the summit, President Hu Jintao announced that his government would double aid for the African continent by 2009, making available three billion dollars in preferential loans and two billion in export credits. Economic observers are already talking about the "triumph" of Chinese diplomacy and African state leaders are praising Beijing's rapid economic development, saying they want to imitate it.

"I expect all of Africa will look at China's great transformation, and we'll see the co-operation that is now going on and identify new means by which we can support each other," said Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the Liberian president, on her arrival in Beijing.

"Africa has always been serving us as a reliable partner in terms of international political and economic co-operation," said He Wenping, director of African Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

But Human Rights Watch (HRW) says Beijing should be considering not only trade but also human rights records in Africa. "China insists that it will not 'interfere' in other countries' domestic affairs, but it also claims to be great friend of the African people and a responsible major power," said Sophie Richardson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "But that doesn't square with staying silent while mass killings go on in Darfur", where more than 200,000 people are said to have died since 2003.

Beijing's business with Africa has tripled within a few years, reaching more than 40 billion US dollars in 2005. China has forgiven debts for loans to numerous African countries, and the World Bank recently noted that Chinese loans to Africa have not increased the continent's indebtedness.  But corrupt governments like Angola also benefit from these loans, which puts them in a position to avoid conditions posed by other countries for greater respect for human rights. World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz has said that Beijing "does not respect" internationally agreed principles to ensure that loans to African countries fund projects that meet high social and environmental standards. He said hoped Beijing would not follow past Western practices of propping up corrupt African dictators and governments.

HRW said China's policies not only propped up some of the continent's most repressive regimes, but also weakened the efforts of others trying to promote greater respect for human rights. For example, Chinese companies now own 40% of Sudan's production facilities, and Beijing has blocked several UN resolutions to adopt sanctions against the Sudanese government. It was only recently that China started to press Sudan to accept a UN peacekeeping force. 

China also continues to sell technology and merchandise to Zimbabwe, breaking the international isolation of its President Robert Mugabe, who persecutes all opposition and is destroying the national economy.

HRW urged the Chinese government to suspend trade with Sudan of products that could be used in the Darfur genocide (like supplying weapons), and to press it to permit the presence of a UN peacekeeping force. "Africans do not need another external power enabling abusive regimes – they need all powers, including China, to place human rights at the center of their policies," said Richardson. "This would be a truly revolutionary approach, particularly for those that pride themselves on their solidarity with the developing world, is to defend human rights."

Meanwhile, as African leaders visit thriving coastal cities, all words about solidarity among "developing countries" seem less and less credible. "When I explain to my African friends that we are still a developing country, they start laughing," says He. "But I tell them, just go and look across the road from my compound, and you will see all the poverty of a developing country too."

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