Congress Presses Obama Administration on Rights in Asia

Members of Congress pressed State Department officials about U.S. policy on the human rights situation in Burma, North Korea and Tibet, Thursday and were sharply critical of China’s rights performance.

Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, opened a hearing on human rights in Asia by saying that China is at the center of harsh conditions in Tibet, Burma and North Korea. She said China tolerates and deals with the repressive governments in Burma and North Korea, and that it is increasing its repression in Tibet.

She and other members of the committee questioned U.S. diplomats about what the Obama administration is doing to push for greater human rights protections in those regions. They were particularly concerned about the possibility Washington would resume food aid shipments to North Korea.

Robert King, the special U.S. envoy for North Korean human rights issues, said no decision had been made on sending aid, and that any decision would be based on need, rather than politics. The United States, he said, would require that it be able to monitor shipments to make sure food goes to those who need it.

He and other diplomats said that U.S. President Barack Obama and senior members of his administration pay close attention to human rights in Asia and regularly push China to improve its rights performance.

King also testified that North Korean officials had discussed human rights with him when he was there to assess the country's food needs last month, and that he had been invited back. He did not say if a trip had been arranged.

Some of the committee members were critical of the U.S. policy of engaging Burma while pressing for reforms and maintaining sanctions.

Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director for Human rights Watch, testified that the United States “doesn’t use all the levers” it has in pushing for reforms. She urged the U.S. to impose sanctions against banks that do business with Burma and push to create an international inquiry into the government’s human rights abuses.

Congressman Chris Smith, a Foreign Affairs Committee member, said that leaders in China, such as President Hu Jintao, have never been held personally accountable for abuses in Tibet and sending North Korean refugees back to their homeland, even though they face imprisonment there. He endorsed the idea of barring leaders from repressive countries from visiting the U.S.