Human Rights Watch today urged the international community to back a resolution condemning China's human rights practices at the next session of the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva, from March 22-April 30, 1999. The drafting and lobbying for a resolution should begin immediately.

"Last year, the key countries that have sponsored such a resolution since 1990 opted instead for 'dialogue' with China, saying a 'non-confrontational' approach would be more effective," said Sidney Jones, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. "But today China is carrying out one of the worst crackdowns against political dissent since 1989. The time for silence is over."

Some of the governments that decided not to sponsor a resolution last year cited the fact that in the last six years, no resolution against China had actually been passed, though in 1995 a measure failed by a single vote. Others cited the lack of consensus about the value of a resolution. And virtually all cited commitments China had made in exchange for dropping the annual effort at a resolution, including promises to sign key international human rights treaties and to welcome a visit to China by U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson.

Jones said none of those arguments held up. "Past failures to adopt a resolution were largely due to a lack of political will by the sponsors, who did not devote as much time and resources to getting a resolution passed as China spent getting it defeated." She also pointed out that under the pressure of the Geneva discussion, Beijing took limited steps such as agreeing to visits by the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (in 1997) and U.N. Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance (in 1994), but stopped short of implementing their recommendations for specific reforms.

"The decision on whether or not to criticize China in the U.N.'s most important human rights body should be based on principle, not on a calculated assessment of a motion's success," said Jones.

Human Rights Watch said it was time to revisit the statements made last year when governments decided to abandon public criticism of China at the Human Rights Commission. Both the European Union (E.U.) and the U.S. set benchmarks for what China would have to do to avoid a resolution, but curiously, the benchmarks did not include refraining from committing new abuses.

The E.U.'s conditions included a visit to China by Mary Robinson, resumption of visits by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to Chinese prisons, release of "a number" of dissidents, signing and submitting for ratification the two key human rights covenants and E.U. visits to Tibet. The American conditions were release of political prisoners with medical problems, signing and submitting for ratification the two key human rights covenants, and resuming discussions with the ICRC on prison visits.

The visit to Tibet of ambassadors from the E.U. troika countries took place in May 1998 but was marred by reports of at least ten deaths, vicious beatings, and prolonged solitary confinement for prisoners who tried to hold a protest at Tibet's main prison. Mary Robinson's visit took place in September 1998, but Chinese officials produced none of the information she requested on prisoners, denied her access to the Panchen Lama, and made no specific commitments on ratification of two U.N. human rights treaties. China signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in October 1998 but has produced no timetable for ratifying it. It has also indicated to diplomats that it intends to attach reservations, or exceptions, on key provisions, such as Article 19 guaranteeing the right to free expression. No progress was made on ICRC visits to prisons.

Meanwhile, the Chinese government has continued to arrest and punish anyone it sees as threatening to its one-party system, clearly violating both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the ICCPR. At least one hundred members of the Chinese Democracy Party have been detained since July 1998, and three have received harsh sentences of eleven to thirteen years in prison. Other are awaiting trial. Lin Hai, a software engineer, was put on trial in Shanghai in December 1998 for distributing Chinese e-mail addresses to a pro-democracy group in Washington; he was given a two-year sentence on January 20. A labor rights and democracy activist, Zhang Shanguang, was given a ten-year sentence for providing Radio Free Asia information about peasant protests. A poet and writer, Ma Zhe, was sentenced to seven years in prison on charges of subversion for publishing an independent literary journal.

In addition, strict new regulations were adopted on formation of non-governmental political and social organizations in October 1998. Chinese officials warned film directors, computer software developers, writers and artists, the media, and the publishing industry that if they endangered "social order" or tried to "overthrow state power" they could be imprisoned for life.

In light of these developments, it is difficult for governments to continue to claim that dialogues are more effective than criticism in addressing human rights issues. Among the countries that abandoned Geneva in favor of carrying out "dialogues" were Canada, Australia, Japan, the U.S. and the European Union.

In February 1998, the E.U. foreign ministers issued a statement just weeks before the first E.U.-China summit in London. They said, "In view of the encouraging results in the E.U.-China human rights dialogue, neither the E.U. presidency nor member states should table or co-sponsor a draft resolution at the next U.N. Commission on Human Rights."

At the same time, the British government, then in the E.U. presidency, qualified this decision by leaving the door open to future support for a Geneva effort. British Foreign Minister Robin Cook said, "We have therefore resolved on a new approach in which we are going to put our priority and pressure on human rights in China through dialogue with China...Any decision that we reach this year in relation to the Commission on Human Rights does not necessarily bind us next year. Whether or not we table a resolution at next year's Commission on Human Rights will depend upon China showing that it is willing to enter into the dialogue in good faith and produce results."

Other countries moved away from sponsoring a resolution, some even earlier than the E.U.

  • Canada's foreign minister, Lloyd Axworthy, said in April 1997, "The government has decided in light of the significant weakening of consensus of the resolution among its traditional co-sponsors that it no longer carries the weight it has in past years...We are optimistic that this [package of bilateral cooperative programs on human rights] will lead to other opportunities for us to influence change in China's human rights practices. Rather than co-sponsor the resolution, we would pursue more effective means to influence Chinese respect for the human rights of its citizens."
  • Australia's Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, also declared in April 1997, "China has agreed to establish a formal and regular bilateral dialogue on human rights... While there will inevitably be differences between Australia and China on human rights issues, a formal bilateral dialogue will provide a framework for dealing with such differences and for pursuing concrete improvements in the observance of internationally recognized human rights standards in China." Noting that a resolution on China had never passed, he added, "If that sort of diplomacy is not going to be effective, well, you have got to think through what could be effective."
  • In the U.S., a State Department spokesman announced the U.S. decision to abandon a Geneva resolution in March 1998, about the same time that the administration disclosed that President Clinton's trip to China would be moved up from November to June: "We have taken note of a number of positive developments in the human rights situation in China...While we by no means consider [China's promise to sign the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the release of several dissidents] sufficient -- nor do we consider the human rights situation in China to be satisfactory -- we have determined that there are other, more promising ways to pursue improving the human rights situation."
  • In Germany, then Foreign Minister, Klaus Kinkel, said in March 1998: "I welcome the fact that China is now a signatory to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and also its announced intention to sign the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Those are hopeful signs, holding out a prospect of further urgently needed progress in enhancing respect for human rights in China. This is a goal to which we remain committed. Countries that think they can ignore their obligations under international human rights conventions are on quite the wrong track."

In recent weeks, pressure has been building within several countries to suspend bilateral dialogues and begin preparing a resolution for debate in Geneva. In the United Kingdom, for example, the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons adopted a series of recommendations on December 21, 1998. It noted that "very grave and widespread abuses of human rights continue in China, not least in Tibet" and called on the British government to give "serious consideration to supporting the renewal of the previous human rights resolution in relation to China at subsequent sessions of the Commission on Human Rights in Geneva."

The European Parliament has repeatedly called on the E.U. to support a China motion in Geneva. Sixty members of the U.S. Congress wrote to President Bill Clinton on December 10, 1998, urging him to "make a renewed, vigorous effort to urge China to comply with its international human rights obligations" and to "inform Chinese officials that the U.S. will press for reintroduction and adoption of a resolution on China at next spring's U.N. Commission meeting..." In his reply on January 5, Clinton wrote that "I am not optimistic that such a resolution would garner sufficient support in the international community to be an effective tool...We will approach the Commission meeting with an open mind, however, and look for the most effective ways to highlight human rights abuses in China."

The human rights situation in China has clearly deteriorated; a return to Geneva would be a fitting response.