Human Rights: In UN, China deflects criticism

September 21, 2017 08:00
Kenneth Roth, director of Human Rights Watch, says China’s crackdown on human rights is the most severe since the Tiananmen Square democracy movement 25 years ago. Photo:

Last week, China’s official People’s Daily published an essay by Foreign Minister Wang Yi praising China’s achievements in human rights ever since President Xi Jinping assumed power in 2012.

“Only the person wearing the shoes can tell if the shoes are comfortable,” said Wang. “Only the Chinese people have the most say in China’s human rights situation. It’s the people’s choice. ”

That sounds logical but, in reality, the Chinese people aren’t allowed any say. The government sees to it that Chinese NGOs play no role in Chinese human rights reports to the UN. In fact, it goes to great pains to prevent ordinary Chinese to attend UN meetings that discuss human rights in China.

The most recent visit by a UN human rights expert was of Philip Alston in August 2016, whose remit was to look into extreme poverty and human rights.

His report praised China for having “lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.” The infant mortality rate, he reported, fell by 60 percent between 2000 and 2012 and the maternal mortality rate fell by 49 percent. “Life expectancy at birth,” he said, “rose from 69 to 75 years from 1990 to 2012.”

But, Alston said, his mandate was to reflect on the relationship between poverty alleviation and human rights and to consider whether China’s achievements “translate into ensuring full respect for the human rights of its people.”

Alston, before leaving China, disclosed that he had been prevented from meeting academics and that officials had accompanied him everywhere. However, one person he was able to meet was the human rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong.

Several months later, Jiang disappeared. Altson said he was “deeply concerned that Jiang’s disappearance has occurred, at least in part, in reprisal for his cooperation with the UN during my visit to China.”

Last week, Kenneth Roth, the director of Human Rights Watch, an international non-governmental organization that conducts research and advocacy on human rights, said that China’s current crackdown on human rights is the “most severe since the Tiananmen Square democracy movement 25 years ago”, when tanks were deployed against student protesters.

Roth made the statement while introducing a report on the human rights situation in China that documented “the lengths to which China goes to prevent criticism of that record of oppression by people outside China, particularly those at the United Nations.”

China goes to great lengths to control discussion of its record in the UN Human Rights Council and other forums.

While the UN emphasizes the role of non-governmental organizations, China bars its own nationals from attending UN forums as members of NGOs.

In fact, one human rights activist, Cao Shunli, was detained at the Beijing airport while attempting to travel to Geneva in 2014, where she was to take part in human rights training sessions. She died while in custody, where she was denied medical care and, subsequently, China blocked an attempt to observe a moment of silence in her memory in the Human Rights Council.

The Human Rights Watch report says that Chinese officials “have harassed activists, primarily those from China, by photographing and filming them on UN premises in violation of UN rules.”

They also seek to block NGOs critical of China from being accredited. In addition, “behind the scenes, Chinese diplomats, in violation of UN rules, have contacted UN staff and experts on treaty bodies and special procedures, including behavior that at times has amounted to harassment and intimidation”.

Chinese officials have also allegedly violated guidelines by inappropriately approaching UN officials and treaty body experts who review state reports. “Sometimes they simply ask to meet and sometimes they offer meals or trips to China,” the report said.

While treated as an international pariah after the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, China has successfully tamed western criticism largely through flexing its newly acquired economic muscles. It has also attempted to shape the international human rights dialogue.

The behavior by Chinese officials documented by Human Rights Watch is clearly unacceptable. What goes on within China may be beyond the reach of UN officials. But such officials should see to it that China adheres to UN guidelines, especially regarding events that take place on UN premises in New York and Geneva.

There is a real need for the UN to ensure that it is not dominated by China. China’s rise on the world stage may be inexorable but China’s official position, constantly repeated, is that all countries, big and small, are equal. This certainly means that the world body should not accept domination by China, certainly not where human rights are concerned.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.