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Open letter to the National People's Congress from Human Rights in China

March 4, 1998

Human Rights in China has sent the following open letter to the members of the National People's Congress today:

Respected Delegates:

As the first annual meeting of the ninth National People's Congress (NPC) opens tomorrow, Human Rights in China calls on you to demonstrate your commitment to realization of human rights for all in the People's Republic of China and mark the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights this year by putting human rights at the top of the NPC agenda.

First, the NPC should ratify the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) during the current session and take immediate steps to implement the treaty, which will come into force three months after ratification. Second, the NPC should urge the government to sign the companion treaty to the ICESCR, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and its Optional Protocol which allows for individual complaints to be submitted to the Human Rights Committee, and to present the treaty for ratification to the NPC by next year's session at the latest. Third, the NPC should take immediate action to improve protections for human rights in practice, through measures including those detailed below.

In order to move immediately towards compliance with the provisions of the ICESCR and the other human rights treaties to which China has already acceded, HRIC urges the NPC to begin drawing up, in cooperation with the Chinese government, a program for enforcement and implementation of existing laws in a fair, just and non-discriminatory manner which accords with basic human rights principles. Of course much remains to be done in terms of drafting new legislation. But HRIC believes that a lack of effort to enforce existing laws is putting eventual realization of the rights contained in the Covenant, as well as the success of the entire project of building a rule of law in China, into jeopardy. Thus before rushing through new laws, the NPC should, exercising its supervisory role over government to the full, concentrate on insisting that the Chinese government respect its existing obligations and move towards respecting those contained in the ICESCR.

As the various U.N. committees responsible for monitoring states' compliance with specific human rights treaties have repeatedly pointed out -- including during examination of China's periodic reports -- the major task of implementing the treaties lies in realizing the rights in question, and passing legislation which theoretically enshrines such rights is only a small step in that direction.

Of course the NPC should also initiate a review of existing legislation with the long-term goal of bringing the overall legal regime into compliance with international human rights standards. This process of amending laws or regulations and enacting new ones will inevitably take some time. In many cases, the increased transparency and accountability which would result from relaxing controls on the media and on independent grassroots organizations could make a major contribution towards achieving these goals. The NPC should thus make a review of the legislative and regulatory provisions in this area a priority.

Such reforms are essential for the realization of economic and social rights for China's people, and thus would make a major contribution to implementing the standards set out in the ICESCR. Without access to civil and political rights, individuals, families and communities are not able to protect their economic and social rights when the latter are violated or threatened. When citizens enjoy freedom of expression, association and assembly, problems of all kinds can be aired and grievances addressed in a timely fashion, thus contributing to the social stability necessary for sustainable, equitable development.

The NPC should also review the Chinese government's record on implementing the rights contained in U.N. human rights treaties to which Beijing has already acceded, particularly the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, taking as reference the recommendations to the Chinese government of the U.N. committees which monitor those treaties.

In recent years, China has passed a host of legislation which is supposed to protect and guarantee rights, including some of the rights contained in the ICESCR. Examples include the Labor Law, the Law on the Protection of Women's Rights and Interests, the Law on the Protection of Minors, the Compulsory Education Law, the Law on the Protection of Disabled Persons and the Mother and Infant Health Care Law. While certain amendments will be needed to bring these laws into compliance with the specific provisions of the ICESCR and other human rights standards, much improvement could be made by a concerted effort to implement the protections they already provide and, in certain cases, creating mechanisms for individuals or groups who have suffered violations of the rights in question to seek remedies for these violations through civil actions in the courts, including providing free legal assistance when appropriate.

Recognizing that there is an extensive range of pressing rights-related problems facing Chinese society today and that dealing with them will be a lengthy, complex task requiring strong commitments from both government and society, Human Rights in China presents the following recommendations to the National People's Congress:

  • The NPC should immediately ratify the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and begin, in cooperation with the government, a detailed review of existing legislation, policy and practice so as to prepare a practical program for implementation of the treaty.

    The NPC should request that the government sign the ICCPR expeditiously and present the treaty for ratification to the NPC at or before the next session of the full body in March 1999.

  • In order that human rights practices be effectively monitored and and public awareness of human rights issues be enhanced, the government should allow the existence of independent human rights NGOs within China as well as unfettered exposure of human rights abuses by independent media. Human rights advocates both inside and outside China should be encouraged to participate in the initiatives proposed above.
  • The NPC and the government should undertake comprehensive reviews of the implementation of human rights standards. A first step should be an examination of laws, regulations and policies used to restrict and punish freedom of association and expression, including the State Security Law, the State Secrets Law and the chapter of the Criminal Code detailing "crimes of endangering state security." This review should lead to amendment of the laws, regulations and policies in question to bring them into compliance with basic human rights norms as well as speedy release of all prisoners of conscience. The authorities should request assistance from the U.N. Human Rights Centre in preparing such a program.
  • In order to reduce human rights abuses and implement the human rights treaties to which China has acceded, the State Council should establish a systematic training program to educate officials on protections for rights under international human rights standards and in domestic law, concentrating first on training officials whose work deals with matters in which sensitivity to such standards is particularly important, such as prison administrators and guards, the police, prosecutors, the judiciary, civil affairs departments and the labor administration.

In the light of the seriousness of human rights violations which continue to occur in China and the history of lack of respect for basic rights, the State Council should allocate a specific budget to educate the general public about human rights protections and international standards, and should include human rights in the compulsory education curriculum prepared by the State Education Commission, so the subject is a regular component of the nine-year compulsory education program. Human rights education should also be integrated into the current national campaign of enhancing public awareness of law.

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