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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

China in Denial

February 22, 2009

by Sophie Richardson
Far East Economic Review
Posted February 22, 2009

Torture in police custody, excessive use of the death penalty,
prosecutions for violating unknowable—and unchallengeable—“state
secrets” laws. Press censorship, restrictions on religious freedom,
limitations on trade unions. Arbitrary detention, abuses of ethnic
minorities, persecution of government critics.

These are but a handful of the common human rights abuses in China which
the Chinese government refused to discuss seriously at its maiden
appearance before the United Nations’ Human Rights Council this month.
Instead, Ambassador Li Baodong insisted that China is a country of
democratic institutions, ethnic equality, fully guaranteed freedoms of
expression, with more than 250 laws to protect human rights. In other
settings Chinese diplomats are typically willing to acknowledge their
country has serious abuses; in this venue, no transgressions were admitted.

The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism within the Human Rights
Council was established in part to replace a system of review that had
become political, whereby some countries’ human rights records were
never challenged. Under the new system, all U.N. member states are to be
reviewed once every four years, and the process allows for written
submissions by the state under review, non-governmental organizations,
and U.N. agencies, followed by a three-hour discussion. Throughout the
course of that discussion, other countries can make recommendations
about how to make progress on particular issues; the government under
review then reports back as to which recommendations it will pursue.

China’s stake in the UPR was primarily an issue of protecting its
international profile. The UPR is the only procedure under which all
states have to account for their rights records before their peers, and
although the recommendations that flow from the review are not binding,
they do create a record against which past and future progress can be
measured. Some states, such as the United Kingdom, knew they would face
close scrutiny and tough questions, but did not attempt to line up their
allies to only raise positive points or manipulate the process to evade
scrutiny. The Chinese government, on the other hand, went all-out to
prevent precisely such a discussion, deploying diplomats to ask—and
tell—other governments what issues they should and should not raise,
mobilizing support from its allies or those subject to Chinese pressure,
and simply refusing to discuss particular issues during the review itself.

Nobody had great hopes that Russia or Vietnam—hardly luminaries in the
world of defending human rights—would speak up in defense of peacefully
criticizing governments or forming opposition political parties.
Singapore’s praise of China’s human rights legislation and Iran’s urging
still-greater policing of Internet communications were depressingly
predictable, as were numerous developing (and Chinese aid-receiving)
countries’ intercessions praising China’s economic accomplishments. And
of course the United States, which continues to let the perfect be the
enemy of the good, sat in the back row during China’s review and did not
act on the opportunity to speak.

China’s Human Rights Council review did offer more than a few
through-the-looking-glass moments. The Sri Lankans invoked Mao. The
Algerians offered wistful admiration of China’s “harmonious society,” a
rhetorical term invoked by Chinese officials as a justification for
crushing dissent. Pakistan’s democratically-elected government ought to
be ashamed of its delegation’s comments about Tibet, which sounded as if
they had come straight from a Xinhua story. Rock bottom—though there was
real competition—was probably Sudan’s expression of support for China’s
odious “re-education through labor” system.

On the other hand, the U.N. review did offer a rare chance for some
governments to challenge the poor rights status quo directly with
Chinese officials. Kudos to Australia and Canada for being not only the
first countries to critique China, but also to raise the especially
touchy issue of abuses in Tibet. Congratulations to the Netherlands for
pushing the Chinese government on its shameful treatment of North Korean
refugees. In two minutes flat, the Czech Republic—whose voice matters
all the more these days as it holds the European Union
presidency—managed to raise nine points, including a call for China to
cease harassing signatories of Charter 08, a pro-human rights manifesto
modeled on Charter 77. Japan noted abuses of Uighurs, Hungary called for
an end to the abuses of human rights defenders, Argentina spoke about
torture. Each of these and many other interventions included praise as
well as criticism—in short, they embraced the true spirit of UPR. And
given the Chinese government’s hostility to criticism, these countries
also appeared to embrace a particular responsibility to exercise an
opportunity perpetually denied to Chinese citizens.

At this particular moment, the review of a rising world power, and the
performance of every nation engaged in the process, was as much on
display as China’s. Even so, the public criticism of China’s human
rights failings laid bare the record for the world to see. Even more
telling, though, is the extent to which the Chinese government
“struggled against” this review. That tells us how little progress
Beijing has made in real human rights terms—tolerating peaceful dissent,
relinquishing power into an independent judiciary, permitting genuine
autonomy—and therefore how much vigilance the rest of the world must
continue to exercise. The people of China deserve nothing less.

Sophie Richardson is the Asia Advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.
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