Testimony by Mickey Spiegel, China Researcher

Mr. Chairman, members of the Sub-Committee on International Human Rights, thank you for inviting Human Rights Watch to speak with you this morning as part of your evaluation of the Canada-China human rights dialogue in furthering China’s adherence to international human rights law. Human Rights Watch is encouraged by Prime Minister Harper’s increasing focus on human rights in China. As part of that attentiveness, we urge similar scrutiny of the human rights dialogue process.

Human Rights Watch believes that the dialogue process, as currently constituted, has little, if anything, to recommend it. The problems include:

  • a shift of focus from year to year which precludes sustained attention to a finite number of serious, on-going human rights abuses;
  • open-ended discussion that lacks an agreed-upon end goal, a timetable for achieving that goal, or a series of benchmarks to measure progress;
  • a process divorced from other bilateral and multilateral diplomatic efforts;
  • assignment of personnel with neither expertise related to the problems under discussion nor the political status to effectively lobby for change;
  • an almost complete lack of transparency as to either goals or progress.

We believe that discussions of human rights violations should not be limited to a separate annual or semi-annual dialogue meeting, but should be part and parcel of regular diplomatic discourse and, should dialogue meetings continue, be but one initiative in an integrated “whole of government approach” to China’s problematic human rights record. We also argue that dialogue must not be contingent on elimination of other approaches to problems, including public outspokenness and, where necessary, diplomatic confrontation. We do not agree with those who say “Well, it’s better to talk than not talk,” particularly when talk is nothing but a substitute for action.

To be even minimally useful, dialogues must:

  • establish end goals, benchmarks, and timetables. Take, for example, eliminating so-called reeducation through labor, a system of arbitrary detention designed to incarcerate, without benefit of any judicial oversight, those accused of “minor” crimes. China has stated the aim of the system is to avoid the criminalization of those accused of certain infractions, but in reality the system allows a “reeducation committee” to detain people for up to three years. An effective way of managing this within the dialogues could be to:
    • First, map the categories of behaviors that make a suspect liable for reeducation.
    • Second, produce a statistical snapshot, by locale, of the number of people “sentenced” in each category during a particular period.
    • Third, investigate, by means of a random sample, the precise reasons given by officials for why the non-criminal, “re-education,” procedure was applied in the sample cases.
    • Fourth, conduct a comparative survey of how other countries, including Canada, would deal with similar low level infractions, and in what circumstances penalties or sanctions can be imposed for offending behavior that does not reach the level of a criminal offense.
    • Agree on a timetable for completion of each of the foregoing phases, with the aim at the end of the phases to draft an agreed program for the progressive elimination of the re-education through labor system.

Each step requires extensive collaboration with Chinese counterparts, and, should they fail to cooperate, Canada should consider suspending the dialogues.

In addition, other changes must take place in order to merit continuing the dialogues. They must:

  • first take up the most important issues, such as the death penalty, arbitrary detention, and torture;
  • not move on to new issues until a resolution has been reached regarding the initial issues;
  • be integrated with other aspects of rights promotion, such as Canadian funding for legal education programs and initiatives undertaken by the UN Human Rights Council;
  • recognize that given the complexity and persistence of each issue under discussion, it would be more effective to get the right people––experts and senior political personnel––involved from the outset and ensure that they remain engaged with the issue as long as possible; and
  • finally, plan for on-going monitoring once a structured program for change is in place and for a finite time after end goals are achieved.

We urge that the Canadian government make it absolutely clear that should China refuse to cooperate in revamping the dialogue process within a reasonable length of time, such as 6-12 months, Canada will refuse further dialogue participation.

Such revisions to Canada’s bilateral dialogues should be combined with Canada’s efforts at the multilateral level. We urge Canada to work with other Berne process countries to come up with a group of key objectives and to coordinate efforts to set up the necessary benchmarks, timetables, and monitoring mechanisms. We also urge Canada to advance dialogue goals through its membership on the UN Human Rights Council, for example, when China comes up for peer review.

Human Rights Watch also believes that Canada must thoroughly review the goals and methods involved in the exchange of prisoner lists, an exercise that is now effectively meaningless. At one time, when avenues for information about prisoners were much more limited, responses from Chinese officials occasionally proved valuable. Today, the information supplied generally adds nothing to what is already known. Furthermore, because the requests for information do not challenge whether the individuals should have been imprisoned in the first place, such requests may be construed by Chinese officials as legitimizing political sentencing and giving credit for reductions.

To determine whether the lists are effective – and therefore whether the practice should continue – the Canadian government should:

  • review the names submitted and responses received from the Chinese government since the dialogues began;
  • compare the responses received against what was already known and against actions undertaken as a result of the request;
  • measure results obtained through list submissions against results achieved through other means; and
  • chart the results of the analysis over an extended time frame.

To the best of our knowledge, most countries that engage China on the issue of political and religious prisoners undertake intense private diplomacy aimed at achieving releases. While we believe that is a better approach than pro forma “requests for information” and expressions of concern about a prisoner’s health, we remain concerned about the lack of public discussions, and that this lack weakens leverage in pressing for change.

Thank you for providing Human Rights Watch a formal opportunity to make known our concerns about the dialogue process. Please call on us, if we can assist further.