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China: Make Concrete Progress at UN Rights Review

UN Members Should Question Crackdown on Activists, Free Expression

(Geneva) – China’s government should use its appearance before the United Nations Human Rights Council to demonstrate its stated commitment to improving human rights by ending its systematic repression of human rights defenders, Human Rights Watch said today. China will be reviewed for the second time under the UN’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) procedure on October 22, 2013.

Chinese officials should not repeat their systematic denials and obfuscation of their first UPR in 2009, Human Right Watch said. At that time, the government claimed that, “no individual or press has been penalized for voicing their opinions or views,” that the country had no “black jails,” and that it did not censor the Internet.

“China is good about signing human rights treaties but terrible about putting them into practice,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “The Human Rights Council review provides UN members the occasion to look at whether those commitments are being implemented – or instead violated.”

Human Rights Watch’s submission to the UPR highlights five areas of serious concern:

  • The government crackdown on human rights defenders including harassment, arbitrary arrest and detention, and torture;
  • The endemic use of torture and other ill-treatment in China’s criminal justice system;
  • Restrictions and control over the media;
  • The legalization of enforced disappearances and arbitrary detention systems including Re-education Through Labor (RTL); and
  • Extensive human rights abuses in Tibetan and Uighur areas.

A month ahead of the review, activist Cao Shunli, known for pressing the government to allow independent civil society participation in the UPR process, was forcibly disappeared at the Beijing International Airport. Cao was at the immigration counter on September 14 when she was seen being taken away by guards. She has not been heard from since and her family has not received a detention notice from the authorities.

On October 16, UN human rights experts issued a joint statement calling the apparent reprisal against Cao “alarming.” The UN experts stated that, “Intimidating civil society members who seek to contribute to such an important international dialogue is completely unacceptable.”

Since February, dozens of human rights activists in China have been detained for organizing and being involved in collective rights actions. They include the prominent activist Xu Zhiyong, who is considered to be the intellectual force behind the group New Citizens Movement; and Guo Feixiong, involved in initiating a public letter calling on the government to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Hundreds of “netizens” have also been detained for allegedly “spreading rumors,” with so-called big Vs (V for verified users) who have a large following, especially targeted. The issuance of a judicial interpretation extending four crimes to include online expressions is also worrying as it makes it easier for the authorities to impose severe punishments for peaceful expressions online.

“The UN review is taking place during one of China’s major crackdowns on activists and free expression,” Richardson said. “Cao Shunli’s prosecution is a shocking rejection of the UPR process. It’s up to UN member countries to make this review meaningful by tackling and getting answers on the toughest topics.”

The government of the People’s Republic of China has committed itself to strengthening human rights protection, as embodied by the symbolic inclusion in 2004 in the constitution of a provision that “the State respect and protect human rights.” The government has endeavored to further develop legal institutions, sought to improve legal protection for workers, renewed pledges to improve access to education and health care, supported large poverty-alleviation and basic infrastructure, implemented national policies to combat HIV-AIDS, and pledged to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which it signed 15 years ago.

But extensive human rights violations, including sharp limits on the exercise of fundamental freedoms, continue. These limits are compounded by the fact that the ultimate source of authority at every level of government is not the government itself but the Communist Party of China (CCP). The legal system, including the judiciary, remains explicitly under the “supervision and guidance” of the party despite being nominally independent. Party control is reinforced by the constitutional prohibition of any action that detracts from the “four cardinal principles,” which include upholding the “leadership of the CCP” and the “people’s democratic dictatorship.” These imperatives bar any direct criticism of the CCP by any individual or organization, and attempts to organize political parties independent of the communist party are severely punished. Every year, hundreds of prosecutions for “subversion” and “separatism” attest to the strict enforcement of these prohibitions.

In addition to these institutional constraints, urgent human rights concerns in China include:

  • Harassment and politically motivated prosecutions of dissidents and human rights defenders; the use of Re-education Through Labor and other forms of detention without trial;
  • Arbitrary detention;
  • Forced confessions and torture in the justice system;
  • Active and overt political censorship of media and Internet content;
  • Executions and judicial procurement of organ transplants;
  • Abuses against petitioners and other citizens seeking redress against state institutions;
  • Persecution of religious believers who refuse to join state-controlled religious institutions;
  • Forced evictions, illegal land seizures, and involuntary resettlements;
  • Forced abortions and abuses of family planning regulations;
  • Discrimination against rural citizens formalized by the household registration system; and
  • Repression of ethnic Tibetans in Tibet and Uighurs in Xinjiang.

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