WASHINGTON — When President Clinton took office in 1993, he announced he would condition a renewal of Communist China's preferential trading privileges on whether it improved its abysmal human-rights record. Neither happened.
Pressured by American firms alarmed that they would be shut out of the world's hottest emerging market, Mr. Clinton reversed his position. While insisting he would continue pressing Beijing to end political and religious repression, he declined to link a renewal of its most-favored nation trading status with its human-rights conduct.
For human-rights advocates, that decision remains emblematic of a weakening under Clinton of the US commitment to global human rights in favor of commercial and other strategic interests. They now hope that Madeleine Albright, sworn in Thursday as the first woman secretary of state, will restore human rights as a guiding tenet of US foreign policy.
"That's her record," says William Korey, author of "The Promises We Keep" about the 1975 Helsinki human-rights accords. "In the past she has taken a very strong position with regard to human rights."
He and others base their forecasts on Ms. Albright's background and her record in academia and public office. A refugee from the Nazi invasion of her native Czechoslovakia whose family then fled to the US from the subsequent Communist takeover, Albright has consistently been a strong advocate of political freedoms. As the US ambassador to the UN, she was outspoken on women's rights and regarded as the leading force behind the creation of The Hague-based UN War Crimes Tribunal on Former Yugoslavia.
At her confirmation hearings, Albright pledged to "address frankly the violation of internationally recognized human rights, whether those violations occur in Cuba or Afghanistan, Burma, Belgrade, or Beijing." Yet she gave no indications of major changes in policy.
Analysts say her background and ascension to the nation's top foreign-policy post does not necessarily mean there will be a new emphasis on human rights in a second Clinton administration.
"Despite all of the publicity, we don't really know what Ms. Albright's general foreign policy views are," says John Bolton, a former assistant secretary of state in the Bush administration who is now with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank here.
Clinton vigorously defends his human-rights record. He points to the US military operation that ousted the brutal military regime in Haiti in 1994 and the 1995 US-brokered Dayton accords that ended the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina and authorized the deployment of American-led NATO peacekeepers. Administration officials also cite US sponsorship of an annual UN resolution critical of China's human-rights conduct, their condemnation of the military regimes in Burma and Nigeria, and repression by Indonesia in East Timor. The US, they say, has been a leader in international campaigns to promote the rights of women and children.
But human-rights groups say the administration's tough rhetoric on human rights has not been matched by its actions.
"In practice ... the administration has not systematically given priority to human rights in its foreign policy decisionmaking," says a 1996 report by the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. "What is lacking is a coherent, consistent, and coordinated approach to implementing human-rights policies across the board."
Human-rights groups cite what they see as major contradictions in Clinton's record. The administration holds that its policy of engagement will bring improvements in China's human-rights conduct by drawing it into expanded economic and political ties with the rest of the world. The administration says China has already been cooperative on a range of international and bilateral issues that justify their policy toward Beijing.
Yet despite growing Sino-US trade and better bilateral ties, most analysts agree that the human-rights situation in China has worsened. It persists in persecuting minorities and religious groups, has reincarcerated leading political dissidents, and all but eradicated the 1989 Tienanmen Square pro-democracy movement.
In Bosnia, the US refuses to allow NATO troops to arrest and send indicted war criminals to the UN tribunal and has declined to help tens of thousands of refugees return to homes from which they were expelled. Repression, albeit to a much smaller degree, persists in Haiti. Washington, meanwhile, has impeded Haitian human-rights inquiries by withholding documents that could prove CIA ties to a notorious militia that backed the former military junta.
Analysts say a first measure of whether Albright will shift human-rights policy will be the US response should China renege on its vow to respect political and economic liberties in Hong Kong after it takes over the capitalist bastion from Britain July 1. Hong Kong is viewed as a test of how Beijing would treat Taiwan should the island ever agree to reunify with the mainland, a goal the administration supports.