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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest


Rights Beyond Borders: The Global Community and the Struggle over Human Rights in China.
Rosemary Foot

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000
298pp. Biblio. index. Hb.: 40.00; ISBN 0-19-829775-0

Since the mid 1970s China has been steadily drawn into the international human rights debate. Foot argues that international human rights norms have affected the nature of the behaviour of all international actors, and it is the behaviour in response to these norms that constitute this environment. Indeed she holds that despite set backs Chinese behaviour and language have demonstrated that Beijing is deeply enmeshed in the human rights debate. However this development has not been linear, nor incapable of being periodically halted or suffering from setbacks. In considering the relationship between China and the international human rights regime the author concludes that some of China's criticisms have not been to the detriment of norm diffusion and in fact have added to the debate, for example by highlighting the need to balance the rights of the two major covenants and by making other governments more aware of their own domestic records.

Though the author is not directly concerned with the relationship between human rights issues and ethnic conflict there is awareness throughout the book of the link between gross violations of human rights and international security. Not least in the detailed examination of issues such as Tibet and a potential refugee crisis.

Foot divides her argument into two main sections. First she addresses the international human rights regime more broadly, tracing its history and the major players. She concludes that ‘the legitimacy of governments has come to depend not simply on control of territory and people's and international recognition of that fact, but also on a government's ability to protect some core group of internationally recognized human rights' (p. 56). However the author is careful to recognise the limits of these developments and points out that there are many mechanisms at state and institutional level that allow the perpetrators of cruelty to avoid being sanctioned.

In the second part of the book Foot adopts a chronological approach to the examination of the relationship between China and the international human rights regime. In particular she demonstrated the shifting approaches of the international community and China's responses; from the mixed signals of the 1976-1989 period, to the breakdown of a coordinated approach in the aftermath of Tiananmen square, to the multilateralism of the 1992-1995 period, and finally the move in the 1990s to a more strategic bilateral approach. Foot points to economics and security as important factors in any assessment of the role of human rights in foreign policy. Not least as demonstrated by the tensions between the executive and congress in the US from when Carter first put human rights on the foreign policy agenda to the decision to unlink Most Favoured Nation status and human rights in 1994.

In line with the fluctuating approach which has been adopted by the international community Beijing has adopted a multi-pronged defence strategy which has included: admitting past wrongs, noting current weaknesses, attacking its critics, and proposing a relativist based ‘Asian values' argument.

Foot provides a detailed illustration of the role China has played in the evolution of the international human rights debate over the last three decades. Through its focus on Beijing this book demonstrates the questions and challenges which face the international human rights community at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Anna Visser

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