Issue 19: China’s recent widely-reported human rights violations

In the past month, China has committed several widely-reported human rights violations. Xu Wenli, Qin Yongmin, and Wang Yucai were sentenced to 13, 12, and 11 year jail terms respectively, for organizing a democratic party to challenge the Communist Party. As well, Zhang Shanguang received a 10 year sentence for speaking to journalists from Radio Free Asia.

Analysis:  The UN has a limited range of tools available for confronting human rights abuses by Member States. Depending principally on moral suasion, good behavior is highlighted and applauded, while human rights violators are meant to be publicly exposed, and thus shamed into compliance. On occasion, concrete measures have been implemented – the criminal courts in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, and the isolation of South Africa during apartheid, are some such examples. How has the UN human rights machinery reacted as China breaches the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that it signed just a few months ago?

First, in 55 years, the UN Commission on Human Rights has never passed a resolution condemning China’s human rights record. In 1998, a resolution on China was not even scheduled for debate at the Commission.

Second, in 1997, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention visited China. The subsequent report lauded China for revising its Criminal Procedure Law: “The increasing role of lawyers in criminal trials, enabling them to defend accused persons more effectively, is in consonance with international legal instruments.” True enough. But following excessive police intimidation of defense lawyers, two of the dissidents tried and convicted last month were forced to defend themselves.

Third, in September 1998, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights made a well-publicized visit to China. There, the High Commissioner and President Jiang Zemin signed a Memorandum of Intent on technical cooperation in the field of human rights. At the time, the High Commissioner said, “It is an opportunity to begin a serious process of cooperation in the field of human rights. The signing of the Memorandum of Intent today will allow us a structured continuation and follow-up.”

In December, after the arrests of Xu Wenli, Qin Yongmin, Wang Yucai, and Zhang Shanguang, the High Commissioner said she would “continue to press for respect of internationally recognized standards on the right of freedom of opinion, expression and association and the right to a fair trial.” Is this enough in light of China’s stated intention to suppress all opposition?

The Chinese civilization has a long and celebrated history. Today, it has an important voice in economic and geo-strategic affairs. Yet, it refuses to fulfill the human rights promises that it has freely undertaken. In 1999, will the UN, with its lion’s roar on the subject of human rights, find its voice on China?


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