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(Sydney) –The Australian government should use its 15th human rights dialogue with China to raise specific human rights cases and set clear benchmarks for improvements on rights, Human Rights Watch said today.

The dialogue will take place in Beijing on February 21, 2014, and comes at a critical time for human rights in China as the government escalates one of the most intense crackdowns in the past 20 years against human rights defenders and government critics.

“China’s deteriorating human rights situation has justifiably raised skepticism about the utility of bilateral rights dialogues with the Chinese government,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Abbott government should ensure that its first such dialogue sets a standard of principled and firm engagement with the Chinese government on human rights.”

In the past, Australia and China’s annual bilateral human rights dialogues have been largely exercises in empty rhetoric, lacking in accountability, transparency, and clear benchmarks for progress, Human Rights Watch said.

The Chinese government, with little resistance from the Australian side, has effectively used the dialogues as a means to compartmentalize human rights issues away from mainstream and high-level diplomatic engagement.

“Past dialogues have failed to produce outcomes to meaningfully address human rights abuses in China,” said Pearson. “If the Abbott government wants real progress on rights in China, they need to ensure that clear benchmarks are the order of the day.”

Benchmarks would include publishing, on a yearly basis, the Australian government’s human rights priorities with China, how it has pursued them, and the results of advocacy. The Australian government should also publish an annual report on the Chinese government’s compliance with their bilateral consular agreement.

The dialogue should also be used to raise specific individual cases of concern, with the explicit message that the Chinese government should expect these cases to be consistently raised in regular, including high-level, diplomatic exchanges from then on. Human Rights Watch urged the government to take up the cases of activists:

·         Xu Zhiyong, sentenced to four years imprisonment in January 2014 under the crime of “assembling a crowd to disturb public order;”

·         Ilham Tohti (Yilihamu Tuheti), a Uyhgur professor at Central University for Nationalities in Beijing, detained on January 15;

·         Liu Xiaobo, the 2009 Nobel Peace laureate serving an 11-year prison sentence; and

·         His wife Liu Xia, unlawfully imprisoned at her home since 2009. 

Human Rights Watch said Australia stood out as one of the few major bilateral partners of China’s which failed to publicly condemn or express concern over Xu’s trial in January, unlike the European Union delegation in Beijing, the EU’s Catherine Ashton, the US Embassy in Beijing, the Canadian Ambassador to Beijing or the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Beyond the dialogue itself, Human Rights Watch urged the Australian government to strengthen its human rights reporting on China through its Beijing embassy, as well as actively coordinate with other countries that maintain human rights dialogues with China, and improve civil society participation in the dialogue process.

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