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As first year of UN-China program on rights concludes, little progress seen

November 7, 2001

As the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson visits China on November 8-9 for the final workshop in a year-long program of technical cooperation with the Chinese government, Human Rights in China (HRIC) points out that the government has done little to give practical meaning to international human rights standards. Many extreme violations of rights continue unchecked, and in a letter to Robinson, HRIC urged her to raise some of the most pressing concerns, including peaceful dissent among ethnic minorities, political imprisonment, the widespread use of torture and the failure to act to eliminate administrative detention.

The main purpose of the High Commissioner’s visit to China is to participate in a workshop on human rights education held in the framework of the technical cooperation project between her office (OHCHR) and the Chinese government. This program, which started a year ago this month with the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (for HRIC’s analysis, see http://www.hrichina.org/pr/english/001120.htm), is designed to help bring Chinese law and practice into compliance with the main international human rights covenants. The High Commissioner is also set to meet with President Jiang Zemin and other officials.

“Since the launch of the technical cooperation program, there has been poor progress on eliminating political imprisonment, administrative detention and torture. HRIC is also deeply concerned over ruthless repression of peaceful dissent in Xinjiang and other minority areas under the guise of fighting ‘internal terrorism.’ In order to make cooperation more meaningful, we therefore urge the High Commissioner to step up her scrutiny of China’s dismal human rights record,” said Xiao Qiang, HRIC executive director.

The following is a summary of HRIC’s most pressing concerns as detailed in the open letter, which is available in full on www.hrichina.org.

MINORITY RIGHTS

In the wake of the September 11 attacks in the United States, the Chinese government expressed rhetorical support for the US fight against terrorism. The government has since sought to link its suppression of dissent in Xinjiang to the anti-terror campaign, even calling for international support for its crackdown on domestic “terrorism.”

HRIC is concerned that, in the treatment of minorities, the Chinese authorities do not distinguish between peaceful expression of dissent or cultural and religious identity and violent acts. Ethnic minorities who seek to develop their own national identity run the risk of being charged with engaging in an “act of splitting the country” even if their actions are entirely peaceful.

In the Uighur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang, the Chinese authorities have long claimed to be fighting against “violent terrorist movements.” However the “terrorist” and “separatist” labels are indiscriminately used, and have mainly served to legitimate the suppression of any form of dissidence through the use of unrestrained force and violence. “Strike Hard” campaigns conducted in the name of “eradicating separatist organizations” have led to indiscriminate and arbitrary detention of large numbers of people, summary trials and convictions, and the execution of at least six people in the last month alone. According to reliable information, in a number of such cases people have been subjected to horrendous torture to force them to confess to such crimes.

UNCERTAINTY OVER REFORM OF REEDUCATION THROUGH LABOR(RTL)

The first workshop held in the framework of the OHCHR’s technical cooperation program, in February 2001, focused on administrative detention. At that time, the High Commissioner publicly called on the government to abolish RTL, a measure that has long been advocated by some Chinese legal scholars and human rights advocates. Since 1998, Chinese authorities have been discussing passing a law to reform RTL. Although this move was welcome, HRIC was concerned that this would only lead to a cosmetic change which would do nothing to address the human rights concerns about RTL. New concerns have arisen as the reform process may have been stalled due to the expansive use of RTL in the Chinese government’s brutal campaign against Falungong. HRIC therefore requests that the High Commissioner reiterates her recommendation that RTL should be abolished.

NO PROGRESS TOWARDS ELIMINATING THE USE OF POLITICAL IMPRISONMENT

HRIC is particularly concerned about the situation of Li Hai, a human rights defender detained in 1995 for documenting the cases of some 900 Beijing residents sentenced to long prison terms for their role in the 1989 demonstrations. In 1996, Li Hai was sentenced to a nine-year prison term for "prying into and gathering" state secrets. Li has suffered from serious medical problems in prison and has not received appropriate treatment.

In China today, there are no protections for the rights to freedom of association and freedom of expression, and these freedoms are routinely infringed. 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. The continued extensive use of political imprisonment is a barometer for the state of the fundamental rights and freedoms available to all people in the PRC.

HRIC calls on the High Commissioner to call for the immediate and unconditional release of Li Hai and all those detained or imprisoned for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and religion.

TORTURE STILL SYSTEMIC

Torture remains a systemic problem in China and can affect all detainees. Concern has grown over the last few months over the increased use of torture against Falungong members to force them to renounce the group. As a result, there has been a rapid rise in the number of deaths in custody. By October 2001, the Falungong group had documented 297 such deaths, with half occurring in the last six months, and 69 percent being of people aged 20 to 49.

The government’s “Strike Hard” campaign against crime has led to speedy executions. Over 3,000 executions have been reported between April and September alone, with as many as 191 in a single day. HRIC is further concerned that the prevalence of torture and the reliance on forced confessions to obtain convictions might lead to the execution of innocent people.

HRIC requests that the High Commissioner press the government to end impunity for torturers and to impose a moratorium on death penalty. HRIC also calls on the High Commissioner to press the government to allow a visit by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture that it agreed to over two-and-a-half years ago. The minimum conditions for such a visit must be those in the agreed “Terms of Reference” for missions by UN experts, since this would allow the Special Rapporteur to conduct the mission with the appropriate independence and impartiality.

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