Dispatches: A look at human rights in the news today
All Dispatches »

Dispatches: How UN Review of China Does (and Doesn’t) Matter
October 22, 2013

Was China’s second Universal Periodic Review – the UN Human Rights Council’s (HRC) mechanism for scrutinizing all member states – today meaningful? Was it different from its first review? Will the concerns expressed about Tibet, arbitrary detention, or other abuses matter to China’s bid to rejoin the Human Rights Council?

In its 2009 review, Beijing effectively sought to ensure its friends, from Algeria to Vietnam, Sudan to Zimbabwe, earned coveted slots on the speakers’ list. Those states followed through, praising forms of arbitrary detention, agreeing about the dangerous effects of “abnormal” activism, and affirming the Chinese government’s views on the primacy of “stability.”

Instead of stacking the speakers’ list, this time Beijing appears to have written many governments’ talking points. Never has China’s social security scheme received so much attention and praise, nor have there been so many exhortations for China to deepen and expand its human rights education program. China’s National Human Rights Action Plans (NHRAP) appear to have served precisely the purpose Beijing intended: not to actually improve rights, but as a document to which other governments could point as evidence of commitment to rights. The title of HRW’s report on the NHRAP says it all: “Promises Unfulfilled.”

But today’s review was made more meaningful by the far greater diversity of states expressing concern, and by their efforts to echo the views of critical voices in China excluded from this process. From Canada to Cote d’Ivoire to Costa Rica, there were widespread calls for respect for the freedom of expression – on the Internet, in the media, in UPR participation itself. Zambia got in the first call for ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a recommendation echoed by dozens of governments. Many also called for an immediate moratorium on and eventual abolition of the death penalty. These widespread calls will help challenge Beijing’s insistence that human rights-related criticism is just a ploy of the west to somehow limit China. 

It would have helped to hear more individual activists, writers, lawyers, and others who’ve been imprisoned for peacefully expressing their views remembered today; even 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, currently serving an eleven-year sentence for subversion, was sadly not mentioned.

Unsurprisingly, the Chinese delegation again summarily dismissed the vast majority of concerns raised, answering with broad generalizations about guarantees under Chinese law. Independent domestic efforts to push for rights protections are a threat, and “stability” – meaning, maintaining power – takes priority. And as it prepares to run for election to the HRC, no one should have any illusions that China's agenda has anything to do with global rights protections.