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Report Shows Rollback on Rights in China

Andrea Lunt

NEW YORK, Jan 11 2011 (IPS) - A new report released Tuesday by Human Rights Watch (HRW) charges that China has largely failed to meet the commitments laid out in its first-ever National Human Rights Action Plan (NHRAP), introduced in 2009.

The 67-page report, “Promises Unfulfilled: An Assessment of China’s National Human Rights Action Plan”, says the state continues to tolerate abuses such as illegal detention and torture, despite the NHRAP’s promises to ramp up civil and political rights.

Among the urgent issues highlighted was the imprisonment of high-profile political dissidents, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo.

Phelim Kine, an Asia researcher at the New York-based HRW, told IPS the action plan failed to mark a real change in the communist government’s human rights performance.

Kine said the ongoing restrictions in China, particularly the controls on assembly and association, were leading to a “pressure cooker” situation.

“China is a state with an extremely politicised judicial system; a country which explicitly subordinates the rule of the law to the interests of the ruling communist party,” he said. “When you look at issues such as the death penalty, illegal detention, torture in custody, etc., these issues to a large extent boil down to a lack of implementation of existing laws.”

“These are issues which are threatening stability and if the Chinese government is serious about one of its key slogans – looking for harmony and stability – then these are the types of issues that it needs to address,” Kine said.

China launched the NHRAP in April 2009, with the aim of boosting economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights, and meeting international human rights conventions.

Despite this, the HRW report identified a series of rollbacks in freedoms over the past two years.

These included tightened controls on lawyers, broadened restrictions on Uighur and Tibetan minorities, increasing numbers of arbitrary detentions and the government’s refusal to release death penalty statistics.

The report also underlined increasing restrictions on Internet and press freedoms, which Kine names as a root cause of a raft of serious problems in China.

“Local issues in China, whether it’s SARS [ a strain of viral pneumonia] , melamine in milk, whether it’s poisoned dog food or toxic toys, could and should be exposed at the local level and then addressed,” he said.

“Instead, because there is no press freedom or whistle blowers, these issues enter the export stream and become international issues,” Kine said.

While the HRW report focused on the shortcomings in the NHRAP, it did note progress in social and economic rights.

This included a reduction in the number of Chinese living in absolute poverty by more than 200 million since 1978.

According to Professor Peter Kwong, a specialist in modern Chinese politics at Hunter College, City University of New York, as China reverses its poverty trend, civil rights have become more important to its citizens.

Kwong told IPS this had led to an increase in “very large and serious protests all across the country” over the past decade.

“Internally in China, there are a lot of people who see the importance of liberalisation in terms of political freedom,” he said. “There is truly pressure from the public point of view that they have to have political reform.”

“But I don’t think we will see this happen this year or even a year from now. It will require a great deal of internal debate and struggle within China,” Kwong added.

While the NHRAP promised to increase freedom of expression, Kwong said this was a contradiction in terms under one-party rule.

“You have a very polarised society and a very centralised political party, and as China opens up to develop there are all these conflicts of interests,” he said.

“On the one hand they would like to give an impression to the world that they want to improve human rights. On the other hand they just can’t do it…they want to loosen up but they are also cracking down.,” Kwong noted. “In many ways in recent times, freedom of speech is actually more tightly controlled.”

HRW listed a number of recommendations as part of its report, including the creation of an independent NHRAP review commission and the drafting of a revised action plan with measurable benchmarks and timelines.

As China continues to deepen its economic ties with the international community, Kine called for states to take a tougher stance on issues of human rights.

“To a large extent the international community’s engagement with China on human rights is more and more confined to annual bilateral dialogues,” he said.

“In these dialogues it’s an annual exercise in which human rights are taken out of the box, put on the table for a little while, and then put back in the box. This is not acceptable.”

The Chinese mission to the United Nations could not be reached for comment on the HRW report.

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