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No Breakthrough Yet on Human Rights in China

(New York) - Human Rights Watch said today that the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, had raised all the right issues in her visit to China, but said it was premature to characterize the visit as a breakthrough. President Robinson, who visited China from September 6-14, said that she had:

  • raised the cases of individual dissidents.
  • cited problems of torture and arbitrary detention and encouraged greater cooperation between the U.N. and the Chinese government in addressing these issues.
  • asked about the status of the Panchen Lama, the nine-year old child not seen since May 1995 when he was formally recognized by the Dalai Lama as the reincarnation of the second highest figure in Tibetan Buddhism.
  • received assurances that China would sign the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in October.

She also spoke publicly about the linkage between economic development and respect for basic freedoms and signed an agreement for technical cooperation on human rights.

"President Robinson was walking a tightrope on this visit, trying to engage the Chinese government on human rights without downplaying the extent or gravity of abuses," said Sidney Jones, Asia director of Human Rights Watch in New York. "It's far too early to tell whether she succeeded. The test will be not whether she gets invited back, but whether China does indeed provide access to the Panchen Lama, release more prisoners, cooperate more with the U.N. human rights experts such as the Special Rapporteur on Torture, and ratify the major U.N. treaties on human rights."

China's promise to sign the ICCPR in October was useful, Jones said, but China would only be legally bound by the treaty's provisions after ratification. (The United States signed the treaty in 1977 but the U.S. Congress did not ratify it until 1992.) Also, Ms. Robinson gave no indication today whether she had brought up China's intention to attach "reservations" to the convention, by which a country can take exception to key provisions dealing, for example, with the right of free expression.

"We are puzzled as to why the U.N. Commissioner declared she was satisfied that China was committed to international standards, when its record on compliance with existing U.N. standards is so poor," said Ms. Jones. "She also said, however, that implementation and follow-up are crucial, and on that point we couldn't agree more."

Human Rights Watch gave Ms. Robinson credit for refusing to go on a showcase tour of a prison in Tibet during her visit to Lhasa on September 10-11, and for asking to see a prominent dissident monk and former political prisoner, Yulo Dawa Tsering. Chinese officials refused to comply with the request. On the other hand, Robinson declined to meet with any dissidents or family members of political prisoners while in China, despite their repeated attempts to see her, and this was clearly a missed opportunity. Chu Hailan, wife of imprisoned labor rights activist Liu Nianchun, was detained and beaten when she tried to see Robinson in Beijing on September 9.

Jones said she hoped that President Robinson would make any follow-up visits contingent on access to China by key U.N. human rights experts, and on clear and concrete steps by the Chinese government to implement the provisions of the treaties it has signed or promised to sign. "The first visit can be aimed at establishing a relationship," said Jones. "The second must be aimed at results." Jones said the need for concrete measures was particularly important since the European Union, U.S., and other governments dropped any resolution on China at the Commission in Geneva this past April in exchange in part for China's agreement to have Robinson visit.

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