Stated Government Goals at Odds With Rollback of Key Civil and Political Rights
January 11, 2011
If this plan had been vigorously pursued – and had not been accompanied by a slew of government-tolerated abuses – it could have marked a real change in the Chinese government’s human rights performance.
Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch

(Washington, DC) - The Chinese government has failed to deliver on commitments in its first-ever National Human Rights Action Plan (2009-2010) to protect key civil and political rights over the past two years, Human Rights Watch said today.

The 67-page report, "Promises Unfulfilled: An Assessment of China's National Human Rights Action Plan," details how despite the Chinese government's progress in protection of some economic and social rights, it has undermined many of the key goals of the National Human Rights Action Plan (NHRAP) by tightening restrictions on rights of expression, association, and assembly over the past two years. The report highlights how that rollback of key civil and political rights enabled rather than reduced a host of human rights abuses specifically addressed in the NHRAP.

"If this plan had been vigorously pursued - and had not been accompanied by a slew of government-tolerated abuses - it could have marked a real change in the Chinese government's human rights performance," said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "But the government's failure to implement the Action Plan makes clear it is more of a public relations exercise than a meaningful tool for protecting and promoting human rights for the people of China."

The Chinese government unveiled the NHRAP in April 2009 as a policy tool for "the promotion and protection of human rights during the period 2009-2010." The NHRAP laid out policy objectives in categories including economic, social, cultural, and civil and political rights, and included sections on the Chinese government's international human rights obligations and human rights education initiatives. The NHRAP described itself as the result of "broad participation" of 53 named government ministries, agencies, and government-organized nongovernmental organizations, along with academics from nine research institutions coordinated by the Information Office of the State Council and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

But the NHRAP's value was undermined by the government's simultaneous commission of human rights abuses during the same period. In 2009-2010, the government:

  • continued its practice of sentencing high-profile dissidents such as imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo to lengthy prison terms on spurious state secrets or "subversion" charges;
  • expanded restrictions on mediaand internet freedom;
  • tightened controls on lawyers, human rights defenders, and nongovernmental organizations;
  • broadened controls on Uighurs and Tibetans; and
  • engaged in increasing numbers of enforced disappearances and arbitrary detentions, including in secret, unlawful detention facilities known as "black jails."

"China needs a credible national human rights action plan that is designed and implemented to improve its human rights performance, not deflect criticism," Richardson said. "The Chinese government's failure to meaningfully deliver on the National Human Rights Action Plan's key objectives will only deepen doubts about its willingness to respect international standards as its global influence grows."

Human Rights Watch's main findings in the report include:

Progress in NHRAP objectives

According to official statistics, Chinese government policies have helped to reduce the number of Chinese living in absolute poverty by more than 200 million since 1978. The NHRAP also committed the government to continue its ongoing poverty eradication efforts. The government has also explicitly prioritized "poverty alleviation" as a goal of the upcoming Twelfth Five-Year Plan for economic and social development. Although aggregate statistics can be unreliable, and poverty and inequality remain serious problems, the government's effort to improve the standard of living is commendable.

Unmet NHRAP objectives

Torture
Despite an NHRAP pledge that "it is strictly forbidden to extort confessions by torture and to collect evidence by threat, enticement, deceit or other unlawful means," torture of suspects in Chinese custody remained routine in 2009-2010.

Illegal Detention
Despite an NHRAP commitment that, "The State prohibits illegal detention by law enforcement personnel...Those who are responsible for illegal, wrongful or prolonged detention shall be subjected to inquiry and punished if found culpable," illegal detention remained widespread in 2009-2010. Victims in that period included thousands of Tibetans targeted with arbitrary detention in the aftermath of the March 2008 unrest across the Tibetan plateau, the enforced disappearance of dozens of Uighurs Muslim men and boys following ethnic violence in the city of Urumqi in July 2009, and the thousands of citizens ensnared in secret illegal detention centers known as "black jails."

Death Penalty
Although the NHRAP declares that, "[The] Death Penalty shall be strictly controlled and prudently applied," the Chinese government continues to refuse to release statistics on the number of people it executes each year, and evidence suggests that mechanisms to prevent abuse of the death penalty appear to be inadequate.

Performing International Human Rights Duties, and Conducting Exchanges and Cooperation in the Field of International Human Rights
The NHRAP committed the government to "fulfill its obligations to the international human rights conventions to which it has acceded, and initiate and actively participate in exchanges and cooperation in the field of international human rights." Yet the Chinese government continued to have a poor record of cooperation with international bodies on issues of human rights. The government has repeatedly rejected requests for an independent international investigation into the March 2008 protests across the Tibetan plateau, refused to approve requests to visit Tibet by the United Nations high commissioner for human rights and six United Nations special rapporteurs, and made false statements during China's first Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council in February 2009, including "There is no censorship in the country," and "No individual or press has been penalized for voicing their opinions or views."

The NHRAP's Omissions
The NHRAP devoted considerable attention to issues that are at best secondary to China's urgent human rights problem, such as increasing community sports facilities to 1.4 square meters per capita by 2010 and "overall promotion of digitalized movie, radio and TV service."

Yet the NHRAP does not address several major human rights issues prioritized by both Chinese and foreign human rights activists: China's hukou, or household registration system; rights abuses related to rising numbers of property disputes; and human rights concerns related to China's increasingly active diplomatic, development, and investment activities in the developing world.

Despite the NHRAP's failures, Human Rights Watch urges the Chinese government to expand on the dialogue that lead to the plan's drafting and to tap the expertise of United Nations special rapporteurs in achieving its goals. A step in that direction would be the creation of an independent NHRAP review commission to evaluate the success of the plan's objectives and draft a revised NHRAP with measurable benchmarks, timelines, and periodic public assessments of its implementation.

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