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Letter to Kofi Annan

January 18, 2001

Mr. Kofi Annan
United Nations, New York

Re: Visit to China
January 18, 2001

Respected Secretary-General Annan,

We trust that human rights will rank high on your agenda during your visit to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Human Rights in China (HRIC) would like to share with you some of our current concerns, and to highlight what we see as the primary cause of many of the abuses occurring in the PRC today: official impunity for rights violations.

Blatant and systematic human rights violations occurring in China are well known and well documented. They include arbitrary detention—we have documented the use of Reeducation Through Labor and Custody and Repatriation—political and religious imprisonment, torture and ill-treatment of detainees, deprivation of the rights to freedom of expression and association, widespread failure to enforce laws protecting the rights of workers and women, suppression of religious freedom and the use of physical and psychological coercion in the implementation of the population control policy. We would like to draw your attention to infringements on the rights to freedom of opinion and religion, expression, assembly and association.

People calling for human rights improvements are systematically silenced, from advocates of political and social reform to labor rights activists and religious practitioners. In fact, in the same month that China signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in October 1998, the Chinese government adopted two laws on non-profit organizations that allow the authorities to further restrict freedom of association and create new obstacles to the development of civil society.

The ongoing repression against Falungong practitioners and members of the China Democracy Party (CDP) illustrates the Government’s lack of respect for these fundamental rights. The Falungong movement and the CDP have both been officially banned. Falungong practitioners have been given extremely harsh sentences of up to 20 years, some 50,000 are reported to have been detained and over 90 individuals have allegedly died in custody. The crackdown on the CDP began immediately after China’s signing of the ICCPR. Since then more than 30 CDP members have been sentenced to prison, and many more sent to serve administrative terms of Reeducation Through Labor.

The China’s National People’s Congress is currently considering ratification the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), but we are very concerned that, according to reliable sources, China intends to reserve on Article 8 on trade union rights. China currently prohibits the exercise of the right to form and join independent trade unions not affiliated to the official All-China Federation of Trade Unions, and repression against labor rights advocates continues unabated.

Of particular concern also is the use of the criminal law—particularly laws on state security and state secrets—to imprison people who have merely engaged in the peaceful exercise of their basic rights. In the 1997 revised Criminal Code, the concept of "counterrevolution" was replaced with that of "endangering state security," which has been left entirely undefined, thus broadening the capacity of the state to curtail the exercise of fundamental rights. Between the entry into force of the revised Criminal Code in January 1998 and May 2000, according to the government’s official figures, 600 persons have been sentenced for crimes endangering state security.

Although prisoners of conscience account for a minority of China’s prison population, their situation is a barometer indicating the extent to which Chinese people can truly enjoy fundamental rights. To bring its law and practice into conformity with international standards, the Government should allow for domestic monitoring of the country’s human rights situation. In order to facilitate this, the rights to freedom of association and expression must be fully guaranteed. We call upon the Secretary-General to urge the Government to release immediately all individuals detained or imprisoned for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and association, and to take legal and practical steps to guarantee these fundamental rights, including the speedy ratification without reservation of the ICCPR and of the ICESCR.

Patterns of rights violations show that impunity and lack of accountability are a principal cause of human rights abuses in China. Mechanisms to hold officials accountable are deficient or non-existent. Controls on freedom of expression and association make it very difficult for people to expose abuses by officials and to achieve accountability.

For example, the crime committed against the unarmed people of Beijing on June 4, 1989, remains uninvestigated and unpunished, despite the brave efforts of the victims’ families acting under the banner of the Tiananmen Mothers. Hundreds of Chinese citizens remain in prison for participating in that year’s peaceful protests. In June 1999, the victims’ families asked China’s Supreme People’s Procuratorate to initiate a criminal investigation in order to determine the legal responsibility of the perpetrators. They submitted evidence consisting of testimonies from 24 victims’ families and three people who were injured, and a list of the 155 known dead and the 67 known injured. To date they have received no reply. These families are subjected to constant harassment, from brief detentions and house arrest to surveillance and the confiscation of humanitarian funds sent from abroad—all clear violations of the rights set forth in the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.

Others who have sought to document the facts of what happened in 1989 and challenge the official silence on the matter have fared even worse. On December 26, 2000, after more than a year and a half in incommunicado detention, Jiang Qisheng was sentenced to four years in prison for circulating an open letter suggesting citizens engage in peaceful activities to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the June Fourth Massacre, such as lighting candles at home. After his detention in 1995, in 1996 Li Hai was found guilty of "prying into and gathering" "state secrets," and sentenced to nine years' imprisonment solely for collecting a list of 158 names of Beijing residents serving long terms for their participation in the 1989 demonstrations. Over 50 of these are still held in Beijing No. 2 Prison, serving sentences of 15 years to life. Their only crime was to stand up for democracy and respect for human rights. Yet these people were charged with criminal offenses and convicted on the basis of insubstantial evidence in patently unfair trials.

HRIC believes that supporting the campaign of the Tiananmen Mothers is crucial as it highlights the importance of the struggle against impunity for the project of establishing effective protections for human rights in China. The recent publication of the Tiananmen Papers has shed new light on the Beijing Massacre and its political and human consequences. Twelve years after the fact, an investigation into these tragic events is urgently needed. We therefore call on the Secretary-General to raise the subject of impunity and the lack of accountability in connection with human rights violations, to encourage the Government of China to take the necessary steps to meet the demands of the Tiananmen Mothers for truth and justice and to urge it to release all individuals who are serving prison terms for their peaceful participation to the 1989 demonstrations.

Lastly, as Secretary-General of the United Nations, we trust that you will urge the Government of China to upgrade its cooperation in good faith with the United Nations human rights system. We are concerned that the current cooperation is mostly pro forma, and that the Government of the PRC seeks to promote technical cooperation while excluding monitoring. For example, the Memorandum of Understanding signed last November between China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights does not allow for any kind of monitoring. Similarly, the Government of China agreed in principle to a visit by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture but postponed this visit indefinitely because it opposes the “terms of reference” which have been approved by UN experts. Instead of a “fact-finding mission,” the Government would rather invite Rapporteur Rodley for a “friendly visit.”

An approach based on human rights education and training can contribute, in the long run, to eliminating rights violations due to ignorance and lack of capacity. But another major cause of abuses in China is the intentional deprivation of rights, including officially-sanctioned, legally-mandated restrictions on internationally-recognized rights and freedoms. Achieving respect for human rights in the People’s Republic of China depends on a long-term process of heightening awareness of human rights among the general population and the development of the domestic human rights movement. We believe that public monitoring, through multilateral mechanisms in particular, provides crucial moral support for those struggling to develop such a movement in very difficult circumstances. The UN thematic procedures play an essential role in this respect, especially in the case of China which, year after year, the Commission on Human Rights has failed to include on its agenda. We believe different approaches to promoting human rights should be mutually enhancing rather than exclusive; human rights monitoring and technical cooperation programs should complement each other.

HRIC hopes that the Secretary-General will formally urge the government of China to improve its cooperation with the Special Rapporteurs, Working Groups and Special Representatives as a sign of its “good faith” commitment to improving China’s rights situation. Acceptance by the Government of fact-finding missions to China by the Special Rapporteur on Torture and the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women in accordance with the agreed “terms of reference” would be a welcome development.

We thank you for your consideration and remain at your disposal to provide further information. On behalf of HRIC, we wish you a fruitful visit to the People’s Republic of China. We sincerely hope that your visit will achieve substantive and positive results which mark moves towards greater respect for human rights in the People's Republic of China.


Liu Qing

Xiao Qiang
Executive Director

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