A proposed bipartisan commission on China should be strengthened, Human Rights Watch said today, as the House of Representatives prepared to vote on permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) for China. A bill sponsored by Rep. Sander Levin and Rep. Doug Bereuter would create a joint Congressional-executive body to monitor China's human rights and labor practices.

If China gets PNTR, what levers will the U.S. use to give China an incentive to improve its human rights record?" said Mike Jendrzejczyk, Washington Director of Human Rights Watch's Asia Division. "The President and Congress should agree on steps to make this commission truly meaningful and effective if it is to replace the annual trade debate," he added.

As the Clinton Administration works to line up votes for PNTR, doing away with the annual trade review, the proposed China Commission has become an essential element of the Administration's policy, endorsed by both the White House and key Republican leaders. The proposal is roughly modeled after the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), established by Congress in 1976 to monitor compliance with the Helsinki Final Act. But in the case of China, there is no parallel international agreement, and the Chinese foreign ministry has already attacked the commission idea.

Human Rights Watch, based on its positive experience working with the CSCE, believes that a high-level commission on China, backed up by a permanent professional staff with a strong human rights background, could conduct useful investigations and missions, examine cases of individual abuses, as well as issue an annual report assessing human rights, worker rights and development of the rule of law. According to the draft legislation, the Commission's report also "may contain recommendations for legislative or executive action." The scope of the actions is undefined. The draft law does require a hearing by the House Committee on International Relations on the commission's report.

"This vague provision should be replaced with a specific requirement that the commission make recommendations every year on ways of using U.S. diplomatic and economic leverage to promote human rights in China," said Jendrzejczyk. "And within sixty days of receiving the report, the House and Senate should be required to debate and vote on the report and recommendations. Otherwise, the Commission may have no impact on U.S. policy. And there will be no pressure for China to make concrete improvements."

Human Rights Watch also said the commission should base some of its staff in Beijing and Lhasa, Tibet as well as in Washington, D.C. Getting access to China is critical; the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, created by Congress, was denied permission to visit China earlier this year, and Beijing has also refused to agree to the terms for a visit by the United Nation's top expert on torture, originally scheduled for next month.

"The administration is focused mainly on trade, which it is now promoting as its human rights policy. But trade alone is insufficient to guarantee change. We need a strong, bipartisan commission to counter this trend," Jendrzejczyk said.