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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

China faces unprecedented UN human rights scrutiny

February 10, 2009

An examination of China's record in Geneva Monday will test the
country's willingness to answer international criticism.

By Peter Ford | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

from the February 9, 2009 edition

Beijing - China will face unprecedented scrutiny of its human rights
record Monday in a key test of Beijing's readiness to answer
international criticism over its treatment of political opponents.

Beijing has sent a large, high-level delegation to Geneva to defend
China's human rights performance in the face of questioning from members
of the United Nations Human Rights Council.

"This is an important test both for China and for the United Nations,"
says Nicholas Bequelin, a China expert with Human Rights Watch.

Some observers doubt that the formal and generally nonconfrontational UN
body will actually put China on the spot for the wide-ranging human
rights violations of which its authoritarian government stands accused.

The United States declined to join the council when it was formed in
2006, saying the body was toothless. President Obama has said he will
reconsider that decision.

Monday's meeting "will be a kabuki dance, a farce," argues Brett
Schaefer, an analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation in
Washington, unless China takes foreign criticism more seriously than it
has done until now.

Human rights activists here and abroad, however, express hopes that
Monday's meeting will indeed help speed China's efforts to improve its
rights record.

"International pressure is very helpful and very, very necessary to
improve the human rights situation here," says Li Heping, a well-known
human rights lawyer who has himself been kidnapped and beaten up for his

"The UN report that comes out of this meeting could have a positive
impact" if it reflects independent assessments of China's record, he adds.

Even if Chinese diplomats refuse to answer the hard questions that some
European and other delegations plan to put at the council meeting, "that
would be good for us to show them up for what they are," says Juliette
de Rivero, a Human Rights Watch activist in Geneva.

The Human Rights Council replaced the discredited UN Human Rights
Commission, where China had always been able to mobilize its diplomatic
allies in procedural motions to avoid any examination at all of its
human rights record.

Under a new system known as the Universal Periodic Review, every UN
member's record is automatically scrutinized by the council every four
years. Even this procedure, however, is not immune from manipulation.

When Cuba came up for examination last Thursday, its allies on the
council took up most of the meeting with paeans of praise for the
Caribbean island's achievements in healthcare and education, leaving
little time for critics to ask questions about political prisoners or
freedom of speech.

China could encourage its friends to adopt the same tactic. In that
case, warns Mr. Schaefer, the event will be "more of a show than a
substantial assessment of China's human rights progress."

Several countries, however, including Canada, Denmark, Holland, and
Norway, have signaled their intention to ask searching questions and to
make pointed recommendations that the Chinese authorities should do more
to end torture, imprisonment without trial, censorship, and religious

China's report to the council, which Amnesty International calls a
"whitewash" of the real situation, avoids all these issues. Foreign
Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said Beijing looked forward to "a
constructive dialogue" with members of the council.

Although China's report is "very disappointing … a cut-and-paste of
template positions rather than a credible engagement in discussion,"
complains Mr. Bequelin, the report of Monday's meeting will include the
recommendations that individual council members make during the debate.

China is free to reject all of them, but any that it does accept "will
give human rights defenders in China something to push for," Bequelin
says. "This process can be meaningful even if it does not get people out
of jail overnight."

However Beijing responds to any recommendations, the review of its
record has already galvanized activists in China, says Li Fangping, a
Beijing lawyer who concentrates on human rights cases.

Some Chinese human rights workers contributed anonymously to submissions
that international nongovernmental organizations made to the council in
recent months, and one local NGO, Aizhixing, which works with AIDS
patients, publicly presented its own critique of China's health system.

"This is the first time that Chinese NGOs have participated in this kind
of work" says Mr. Li. "Human rights activists here are playing a more
and more important role. That is a trend that cannot be reversed."
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