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Protests Force White House to Address Human Rights Now

By Paul Blustein and Thomas W. Lippman
The Washington Post
JAKARTA, Indonesia

President Clinton found himself in the awkward position Monday of trying to advance a major trade initiative with some of the world's most authoritarian regimes without appearing callous about human rights.

Clinton, who came to a summit of Asian and Pacific nations here boasting that his mission would promote U.S. exports in the world's fastest-growing region, was forced to confront the human rights question following widely publicized demonstrations by protesters favoring independence for the Indonesian-occupied territory of East Timor.

The controversy is threatening to divert attention from the trip's centerpiece, scheduled for unveiling Tuesday - a declaration by the 18 members of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC) pledging to establish free trade in the region by the early decades of the next century.

Administration officials argued that the free-trade proposal will boost human rights in countries such as Indonesia and China by spurring economic growth and helping to build a democracy-minded middle class. They first made those points last spring when Clinton decided to sever the link between China's human-rights policies and its preferential trade status with the United States.

But the new message was hard to convey amid television broadcasts showing rioters battling police in Dili, East Timor's capital city, and Timorese students barricaded on the grounds of the U.S. Embassy here, pleading for "the world's only superpower" to help end Indonesia's repressive rule over their territory.

At a news conference, Clinton - who looked as if he had finally caught up on his sleep after his transpacific flight Saturday - offered a spirited defense of his human rights record.

"The United States, perhaps more than any other country in the world, consistently and regularly raises human rights issues," he said. In his meeting Monday morning with Chinese President Jiang Zemin, he said, "We made it absolutely clear that in order for the United States' relationship with China to fully flower, there had to be progress on all fronts."

"Growth means people are better off, and that in turn means they begin independently seeking democratic rights," said W. Bowman Cutter, a top Clinton economic aide, adding that "it is still absolutely the intention of the United States to raise these (human rights) issues" in talks with other countries.

Nevertheless, the administration has found itself hard-pressed to counter accusations that it is placing mercantile considerations ahead of moral ones. Human Rights Watch/Asia, an advocacy group, charged Monday in a report that "commercial diplomacy" in the Asia-Pacific region is increasingly pushing human rights concerns to the sidelines."

Clinton's entourage has provided ample evidence of the administration's eagerness to make cash registers ring for U.S. goods in fast-growing markets regardless of the type of government in charge.

Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown, who attended signing ceremonies in Beijing last August for nearly $5 billion worth of business for U.S.-based companies, is planning to trumpet the signing of some lucrative Indonesian contracts for American firms on Wednesday. One of these deals ranks as perhaps the largest in history a $34 billion agreement for Exxon Corp. to develop a huge natural gas field.

"In a series of meetings with Indonesian ministers I will support American bids on Indonesian contracts," Brown said in a speech Sunday.

Even Secretary of State Warren Christopher has scheduled a visit to an AT&T manufacturing plant in West Java on Tuesday.

But while the administration's zest for boosting U.S. business interests may undermine its claims of being concerned about human rights, many independent analysts agree that browbeating the Asians on the issue is unwise, and that encouraging economic growth offers the best hope.

They cite examples such as South Korea and Taiwan, both formerly autocratic countries that democratized in recent years after attaining solid middle-income status.

"I'm not saying it's inevitable, but there's massive evidence" that growth nurtures democracy, said Donald K. Emmerson, a University of Wisconsin political scientist attending the APEC meeting. "I certainly have more faith in the evolutionary power of economic growth than in the ability of the president of the United States using a club to push democracy down the throats of these countries."