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UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to visit China for signing of MOU

November 17, 2000

HRIC issues open letter

With the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights set to visit China on November 20-21, Human Rights in China (HRIC) urges her office to maintain vigilance in the public monitoring of China’s rights situation.

The primary purpose of the trip, the High Commissioner’s fourth visit to the People’s Republic, is to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Chinese government. The MOU will initiate a program of technical cooperation designed to help bring Chinese law and criminal practice into compliance with the two international human rights covenants that China has signed but not ratified. The Memorandum, which has undergone two years of negotiation, is expected to be made public at the time of signing on November 20, 2000.

In recent years, China’s interactions with the UN human rights regime have revealed a determination to go through the motions in dealing with the UN system, rather than engage in substantive cooperation aimed at ending rights abuses. “The High Commissioner should encourage the government of China to upgrade its cooperation with her own office as a sign of its good faith to improve China’s human rights record” said B?trice Laroche, HRIC UN Liaison. “Technical cooperation and monitoring activities should be considered complementary.”

As highlighted in an open letter issued by HRIC today (see attached), the Chinese government should allow for domestic monitoring of the country’s human rights situation in order to bring its law and practice into conformity with international standards. This is an area where the High Commissioner’s cooperation could be crucial. In particular, China’s acceptance of visits by the Special Rapporteur on Torture and the Special Rapporteur on Women in accordance with these mechanisms’ own mandates would be a welcome development.

Under China’s current climate, guarantees for the rights to freedom of association and freedom of expression are effectively absent. People calling for human rights improvements are systematically silenced, from members of the China Democracy Party to Falungong practitioners. And efforts to organize independently, whether around issues of religion, politics, human rights, or labor are ruthlessly suppressed. HRIC calls on the High Commissioner to reiterate the comments made by an expert of the UN Committee Against Torture in favor of “independent NGOs based in China,”and to urge the Chinese government to release all prisoners of conscience immediately and unconditionally.

Impunity and the lack of accountability are at the root of the most serious abuses of human rights occurring in China. The most vivid example of this is the June Fourth Massacre of 1989--the crime committed against the unarmed people of Beijing which remains uninvestigated and unpunished eleven years later. HRIC calls on the High Commissioner to support the Tiananmen Mothers, who are at the forefront of the campaign for truth and justice for June Fourth victims. The High Commissioner should urge the Chinese government to take the necessary steps for meeting the Tiananmen Mothers’ demands for a full criminal investigation into the massacre, as well as the punishment of all those responsible.

HRIC is also concerned with the direction of China’s legal reform. In particular, HRIC fears that efforts to reform two forms of administrative detention - Reeducation Through Labor (RTL) and Custody and Repatriation (C&R) - which both violate international human rights standards and current Chinese law, will lead to mere cosmetic changes. It is therefore crucial that Chinese legal scholars favoring the abolition of RTL receive the firm support of the High Commissioner.

C&R, a lesser known measure, allows for the administrative detention, absent due process, of people considered undesirable by urban authorities. Targets include the homeless, street children, prostitutes, the mentally ill and, increasingly, migrant workers. C&R affects upwards of two million people annually, with some five to 20 percent of these being children. After years of almost total government secrecy about this system, a few Chinese journalists have begun to expose its abuses, and some Chinese legal scholars are questioning its legality. Unfortunately, the government's response has been to propose legislation that would "legalize and regulate" C&R, which would do nothing to end the arbitrary and abusive nature of the system.

HRIC hopes that the High Commissioner will strongly urge the Chinese government to bring its detention regime into conformity with relevant international standards and to take steps to abolish all forms of administrative detention, as recommended by the UN Committee Against Torture. It is time the Chinese government stopped enacting laws to deprive people of their rights, and instead began to establish and enforce proper protections for individual liberties. As the High Commissioner herself rightly remarked on her last visit to China, “Bad law can be a tyranny.”

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