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October 7, 2013

Xi Jinping, President of the People’s Republic of China

Zhang Dejiang, Chairman of the National People’s Congress


No. 174 Xi Chang’an Jie,

Beijing 100017 China


Re: Ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

Dear President Xi and Chairman Zhang,

On the fifteenth anniversary of the Chinese government’s signing of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), we write to urge that your government move to ratify the treaty without further delay. Human Rights Watch is a nongovernmental organization that monitors and reports on human rights in about 90 countries around the world.

States party to the ICCPR undertake to respect fundamental rights and freedoms which include protections against mistreatment in detention and unfair trials and the rights to free association and expression and to political freedoms. To date, 167 out of 193 member states of the United Nations are parties to the ICCPR.

Human Rights Watch believes that there are simply no longer credible reasons to delay ratification. The Chinese government’s position has long been that it was working on “preparing the conditions for ratification,” but without ever committing to a timetable. In May 2004, Premier Wen Jiabao said that China was readying itself to ratify the ICCPR “as soon as possible.” Human Rights Watch was encouraged when China’s first National Human Rights Action Plan (2009-2010) identified preparation for ICCPR ratification as an objective but is concerned that this aspiration is noticeably absent from the subsequent National Human Rights Action Plan (2012-2015). Human Rights Watch was also encouraged when China accepted recommendations to ratify the ICCPR from numerous governments during its first Universal Periodic Review at the United Nations Human Rights Council in February 2009. Yet with each year that has passed without progress towards ratification, it appears that China’s determination to ratify has grown more questionable. 

Chinese citizens have also noted the lengthy gap between signature and ratification and urged the government to ratify the international treaty. In February 2013, 120 scholars, lawyers, and journalists signed a petition to the government urging the National People’s Congress to ratify the ICCPR. In July 2013, nearly 100 Shanghai residents signed a joint letter calling on the government to ratify it as well.

In addition, simply by virtue of signing the ICCPR, the Chinese government is bound not to act in ways that defeat the objectives and purposes of the Covenant. Yet violations of the ICCPR remain endemic in China, and although the state has added commitments to protect rights in the constitution and adopted some key legislation, Chinese law and practice on the whole falls short of guaranteeing many of the rights defined in the covenant, including, but not limited to: the rights to freedom of expression, association, religion, movement, the right not to be tortured or arbitrarily detained, and the right to be tried by an independent and impartial tribunal. Ratification of the ICCPR and implementation of its guarantees into Chinese law would place China on the path of substantial improvement in its record on civil and political rights.  Some areas which would especially benefit from the adoption of the ICCPR include the following:

  • The Chinese government executes more people than any other country in the world; an estimated 3,000 people were executed in 2012 alone. In recent years, the Chinese government has made efforts to reform the ways in which it applies the practice of execution by reducing the number of crimes that permit this punishment and mandating that the Supreme People’s Court review death sentences before they are carried out. But, cases like that of Shenyang hawker Xia Junfeng, executed in September 2013 despite blatant fair trial violations, show that such reforms mean very little when there is lack of due process in Chinese courts. The ICCPR stipulates that if states employ the death penalty, they do so only for the most severe crimes, they do not contravene other protections under the Covenant, and that those sentenced to death have the opportunity to ask for amnesty or commutation. Yet China continues to sentence people to death, including for non-violent crimes, and in the absence of fair trial protections. A majority of countries in the world have concluded it is a cruel and inhumane punishment and have already abolished the practice.
  • The use of arbitrary detention remains widespread in China despite the prohibition in Chinese Constitution against “unlawful deprivation of…freedom of person.” Although a Chinese official announced in January 2013 that the government would “stop using” the administrative detention system known as Reeducation through Labor (RTL) — one of several such forms of detention declared by the United Nations to be arbitrary — by year’s end, few details have emerged regarding progress on this. State media has reported that some RTL facilities have been converted to forced drug rehabilitation centers, another system of arbitrary detention where detainees have no access to trials to challenge evidence against them. Secret and unlawful “black jails” remain in use without any official efforts to stop this practice.
  • There are severe restrictions on political participation as China lacks the periodic, freely contested elections required by the ICCPR and remains a one-party state. Individuals who have attempted to exercise this right, either by running as independent candidates to the state-controlled local people’s congresses, or by organizing political parties independent of the Chinese Communist Party, are often the subject of serious reprisals. In Hong Kong, although universal suffrage is promised in the Basic Law and the Chinese government has stated that such suffrage “might be” granted from 2017 onwards, the Hong Kong government has not yet announced a concrete timetable to move towards genuine democracy. Meanwhile, Beijing officials indicated in 2013 that the central government would maintain control over the nomination process and that only pro-China candidates would be endorsed as Hong Kong’s top leaders.
  • The Chinese government continues to employ widespread means of restricting peoples’ freedom of expression. The mass media remains in firm government control, while the popular internet is heavily censored and filtered. The government has also instituted “real-name registration” to deter online whistleblowing and criminal penalties for those who dare to breach restrictions over online speech. Those who write about democratic reforms or who write critically of the government are often severely punished, such as Sichuan activist Chen Wei, who got nine years for “inciting subversion of state power,” or Liu Xianbin, who is serving 10 years for the same crime.

Human Rights Watch urges the ratification, without reservations, of the ICCPR to be presented to the National People’s Congress as a matter of priority by the government and that the government announce its intention to do so at its forthcoming review under the Universal Periodic Review mechanism later this month. In the Chinese government’s bid to join the United Nations Human Rights Council, China pledged “to work with the rest of the international community to better protect and promote human rights in China.” There is no better way to demonstrate such commitment than to ratify the ICCPR.

We look forward to your reply and would be pleased to discuss these matters with appropriate officials at your convenience.


Sophie Richardson

China Director

Human Rights Watch

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