(New York) — Human Rights Watch today welcomed China's signing of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

It urged Beijing to act quickly to ratify the treaty and fully implement its guarantees of freedom of expression, fair trial, protection against arbitrary d"Since China is currently in violation of almost every article of the covenant, we hope its decision to sign indicates a change in human rights practices," said Sidney Jones, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch's Asia Division. "The test will be in the implementation." She noted that signing is only the first step in becoming a party to the treaty; it then must be sent to the National People's Congress for ratification, and the government has announced no timetable for doing so. Only after ratification will China be legally bound by the treaty's provisions.

The timing of China's decision to sign the ICCPR was clearly chosen to derive maximum political benefit. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, just completed a visit to China and Tibet on September 14. Tomorrow British Prime Minister Tony Blair is due to arrive in Beijing on an official visit. Earlier this year, Britain had taken the lead within the European Union to drop criticism of China at the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva in exchange for pledges by China to sign this treaty. The Clinton administration, which also abandoned action in Geneva, had lobbied for months to get the ICCPR signed before Clinton arrived in China in June; announcement of the date of today's signing in New York took place last week when Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan met with Clinton at the White House.

"China's promise to sign this treaty bought international silence on its human rights practices," said Jones. "Signing could still be the right move for the wrong reasons but only if we see tangible human rights improvements." Those improvements should include releases of political prisoners and an end to the system of reeducation through labor, a form of arbitrary detention, Jones noted. "If this proves to be simply a public relations exercise on China's part, then Britain, other members of the E.U., and the U.S. have an obligation to use next year's meeting of the Human Rights Commission to say so," she said.

Human Rights Watch expressed concern that China might attach "reservations," or other exceptions known as "declarations" or "understandings," to some of the convenant's most important provisions, including Article 19 on the right to free expression. Such exceptions could rob the signature of much meaning. (The U.S. attached more exceptions than any other party to the treaty.) But already dissidents within China are appealing to authorities to respect the covenant's guarantees of free assembly, speech, and association.