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Open Letter from Human Rights Watch to Heads of Government and Heads of State

Regarding possible attendance at the opening or closing ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing

Re: Open letter from Human Rights Watch to heads of government and heads of state


Your Excellency:

We write regarding your possible attendance at the opening or closing ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing. As the August 8 opening nears, the eyes of the world increasingly are not just on the athletic competition, but also on human rights conditions in China. In light of the downward spiral of human rights in China, the recent unrest in Tibet, and the political impact your decision about attending the opening or closing ceremonies will have, we urge you to condition your attendance at the Games on specific steps by the Chinese government to fulfill its human rights commitments, including those it made at the time it was awarded the Games.

Over the past two decades, the Chinese government has chronically restricted basic freedoms, including those of association, expression, and religious practice. Although we recognize some advances made during this period, the past three years have seen a steady deterioration of human rights: arrests of prominent civil rights activists, tightening restrictions on non-governmental organizations, increasing Internet censorship, and hardening policies towards ethnic minorities, in particular in Tibet and Xinjiang.

In the past year, the Chinese government has perpetrated abuses specifically as a result of its hosting the Games, including imposing restrictions on media freedom, turning a blind eye to abuses of migrant construction workers laboring on Beijing's new venues, subjecting those who criticize the games to house arrest and prison on state subversion charges, and conducting sweeps to remove the poorest and most vulnerable groups from Beijing, such as petitioners and beggars, among others.

Since mid-March, as has been widely publicized, the Chinese government has responded disproportionately to protests in Tibetan areas. Chinese security forces have violently dispersed protestors, arbitrarily detained hundreds, and refused to account for their whereabouts or well-being. We have received many credible reports of excessive use of force by police and security forces, torture in detention, prohibition and suppression of peaceful protests, military-type operations to seal off monasteries and villages, house-to-house searches, large-scale arrests, and persecution of clerics. Such treatment fits a well-established pattern of similar abuses in recent years by Chinese authorities in the context of protests, particularly in ethnic minority areas. It has been difficult to corroborate many such reports because the Chinese government has not allowed independent observers into the region, has moved swiftly to expel the foreign press from the region, and has continued to manipulate the information that has been released to place all blame on Tibetans. Yet the Chinese government itself has admitted opening fire on demonstrators in Sichuan and shooting four people.

The Chinese government’s disregard for human rights can also be seen in some aspects of its foreign policy. It repeatedly blocks targeted sanctions on responsible individuals of rights-abusing governments at the United Nations Security Council, attempts to silence debate at the United Nations Human Rights Council, and refuses to use its considerable leverage in some of the worst human rights crises. For example, although the Chinese government used its influence to press the Sudanese government to agree to a United Nations African Union peacekeeping force (UNAMID) in Darfur, much more pressure is needed to stop Khartoum's obstruction of the full deployment of this force on the ground. China should also press Sudan to end its attacks on civilians in Darfur, and to comply with its obligations under Security Council resolutions and international law.

Taken together, many of these developments stand in stark contrast to the Chinese government’s broad commitments to improving human rights in advance of the Games.

Although Human Rights Watch takes no position on a boycott of the Games, we do believe that the Olympics is a unique and appropriate moment for world attention to focus on China’s human rights record, and an important opportunity for China’s government to make demonstrable improvements. As it is important to China’s leaders, the participation by heads of state and government at the opening or closing ceremonies of the Games remains a key point of leverage to press for positive changes in the coming months. The fact that the Chinese government has invited more than 100 such individuals – an unprecedented number – underscores its intention to use the ceremonies as a political event and to increase its stature domestically and internationally.

The question is whether you want to participate in this process. We strongly urge that you condition your attendance on the Chinese government:

  • Permitting an independent international investigation, ideally led by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, into the events in Tibetan areas since March 10. The investigation should focus on issues such as access to prisoners, excessive uses of force including extrajudicial executions, torture in custody, arbitrary detentions, the failure to distinguish between protesting, which is permitted under Chinese law, and rioting, and the violation of freedoms of speech, assembly, association, and religion. The findings of this investigation must be made public prior to the opening of the Games.
  • Reopening Tibetan areas to the international media as part of its commitment to media freedom in the run-up to the Olympics, making those freedoms permanent, and extending them to Chinese journalists. The recent government-controlled tours by members of the foreign media should not be considered evidence of real media freedom. Indeed, participants on that tour commented that their movements were strictly monitored and their reporting freedom limited by their government minders.
  • Ceasing the practice of silencing peaceful government critics or protestors through extrajudicial measures such as house arrest or actual prosecution on grounds of subverting the state, a charge that carries a five-year sentence. The activists Hu Jia and Yang Chunlin were recently sentenced on these charges to three-and-a half and five years, respectively, for their public support of human rights and criticism of the government.
  • Publicly calling on the Sudanese government to immediately cease attacks on civilians in West Darfur by Sudanese Armed Forces and allied militia, and to actively facilitate the speedy and unhindered deployment of UNAMID at all levels. If the government of Sudan fails to comply, China should then support the imposition of targeted sanctions on senior government officials by the Security Council.

We believe that now is a crucial moment to press for these improvements, which will contribute measurably to protecting key human rights, including the freedoms of expression, association, and assembly, transparency, and the rule of law in China. For China to progress in these areas is in the interests of China’s people, and in the world’s interests. You can make a key contribution by deciding not to attend the ceremonies or postponing making a decision until these conditions have been met. In this way it will be the decision of the Chinese government whether you and other world leaders attend the Games.


Kenneth Roth
Executive Director

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