Foreign policy must cover human rights issue


"`HERE is a question for you. Why should the West tell China what to do'? The West has done terrible things in China, what right does it now have ...", the voice seemed to trail off before the sentence was completed.

The speaker, a young and clearly distressed Chinese woman doctor, was in a television studio in London, part of a panel assembled to discuss Return to the Dying Rooms, Channel 4's harrowing documentary on the treatment and systematic starvation of thousands of babies each year in Chinese orphanages.

As an Irish person, it was impossible not to feel some sympathy for her reaction. We have harsh experience of being lectured by richer, superior neighbours on our inadequacies. The pages of Punch in the last century and, more recently, the columns of the British tabloids have graphically depicted us as congenitally violent, feckless, drunk etc.

It is probably true that the documentary did not give sufficient weight to the appalling problems which China faces in controlling its population, or the advances which have been achieved for women there. But the evidence on which Return to the Dying Rooms is based is so shocking that it must be of concern to all of us.

The documentary, as its name implies, is a follow up to a programme screened last June, which raised extremely disturbing questions about children, particularly girl children, who were filmed in all their piteous vulnerability, left to die of starvation in Chinese orphanages.

The second programme coincided with the publication last weekend of a 330 page report, researched over nine months by a US based group called Human Rights Watch, which details the scale of the practice of "summary resolution" - allowing babies to die of acute malnutrition, hypothermia and neglected sickness.

Much of the evidence comes from official statistics, published in China, which show that the death toll in the country's orphanages in the late 1980s and early 1990s was over 50 per cent nationwide. In at least one showpiece institution in Shanghai, the death toll rose to 90 per cent. This is worse than the mortality rate in Romanian orphanages at the time of Ceausescu's fall in 1989, which was 40 per cent.

The authors of the Human Rights Watch report concluded that many institutions "appear to be operating as little more than assembly lines for the elimination of unwanted orphans". The overwhelming majority of these orphans are girl babies. Others are handicapped, unattractive or obstreperous.

This is a brief description of just some of the content of the programme for readers who may have missed it. What concerns me here is the kind of questions the report raises for this country at a time when we are, or should be, involved in a serious, public debate about Ireland's foreign policy, and the kind of influence we hope to exercise on international affairs.

The Cabinet is expected to consider the long awaited White Paper on Foreign Policy (almost a year in gestation) this month and it will be debated in the Dail later this year.

Such public discussion as there has been on the issue has focused on Irish neutrality and the implications for this country of a common foreign and security policy within the EU. But we have long aspired to pursue a "moral" foreign policy and if this is to have any meaning, we cannot, must not, ignore human rights issues like that of the Chinese orphans.

THE question is how can we, as a small state within the EU, raise such issues and effectively influence the debate about them. Even after the searing first hand evidence given by doctors and other witnesses in Return to the Dying Rooms, I was struck by the panel discussion that followed the programme.

It was clear that Dr Langtry, to whom I referred to at the start of this column, felt that the other speakers were both simplistic and patronising in their attitudes to China's problems.

My impression was that, on the contrary, they all knew China well and loved the country and its' people. At one stage, the writer, Jonathan Mirsky, tried to comfort her by saying that the programme was not designed to "get at China", that every country has problems about which it feels extremely sensitive.

Yet they agreed that, in the short term at least, the effect of the documentary would be that the Chinese government would reject all criticism and" look for some way to exact revenge for this "loss of face", probably by adopting a tougher attitude towards Hong Kong.

Equally, though, they emphasised that it was only by focusing international attention on such problems that change would be achieved. At least it will not be open to the world community to say, as with the Nazi concentration camps, "we did not know".

The screening of this programme has already caused problems for Mr Malcolm Rifkind, the British Foreign Secretary, who is visiting Beijing this week. Unlike our closest neighbours, we are fortunate in that we do not often find ourselves in a position where we are required to pit our commitment to abstract moral values, like freedom of, expression, against our cruder commercial interests.

On a related issue, I wonder what our reaction would have been if we had been asked to give asylum to a troublesome Islamic dissident like Dr Mohammed Al Masari at a time when this could threaten thousands of jobs. Perhaps we might have behaved in a more principled way than the British government and defied the Saudis. Or, again, perhaps not.

We value very highly our image of ourselves as standing firmly on the side of the angels in the international arena. Our aid workers are to be found in every country which is ravaged by famine and disaster. We respond with great generosity to calls on our charity.

President Clinton has praised our record in the UN peacekeeping forces. We believe that there are situations where our voice deserves to be listened to and trusted, precisely because we do not carry the baggage of an imperial past.

This week, as a member of the EU's troika of foreign ministers, the Tanaiste has been talking to Greek and Turkish leaders in Cyprus. Mr Spring is said to believe that the lessons learned during the peace process in Northern Ireland could be of particular value in promoting dialogue in that troubled and divided island.

But, sooner or later, if we are to play the kind of positive role which the Tanaiste seems to envisage, we will have to make difficult, controversial choices. There are times when a moral stance can only be enforced by hard, economic decisions, as the experience of South Africa has shown.

At the very least, we are going to have to learn to debate these issues. If we had known last autumn what we know now about the treatment of girl babies in China, should Ireland have sent a Government Minister and a high powered official delegation to the women's conference in Beijing, honestly don't know the answer but I do know we should not ignore what we have been told.