China Defends Rights Record to U.N. Panel

By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 10, 2009

United Nations delegates took China to task on its human rights record Monday, pressing officials about Tibet, labor camps, the death penalty, torture in custody and the treatment of dissidents, in a U.N. rights panel's first full review of the country's progress.

The Chinese delegation, led by Ambassador Li Baodong, defended the government's treatment of citizens, telling the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva that people in China are free to voice their opinions to the media and that the government opposes torture.

The questioning session was part of a review program started in 2007 that will examine all U.N. member states every four years.

In a report submitted before the proceedings, China emphasized that it believes human rights are related to economic growth. As standards of living have improved, it argues, so have political participation and the robustness of the judicial system.

"China respects the principle of the universality of human rights," the document states. But it adds: "Given differences in political systems, levels of development and historical and cultural backgrounds, it is natural for countries to have different views on the question of human rights."

Human rights groups say that China's comments during the session whitewashed reality and that events in the past few months showed evidence of abuses.

Critics of the government -- especially those who signed a pro-democracy manifesto known as Charter 08 that has been circulated on the Internet since mid-December -- have been rounded up, interrogated and detained. Discussions of sensitive political issues, as well as sensitive news stories, have been censored on the Internet. Lawsuits brought by grieving parents -- whose children died when their schools collapsed in last May's earthquake in Sichuan or because of tainted milk powder -- have been squashed.

The Chinese government dismissed "serious issues as 'political' rather than as human rights issues" and admitted the existence "of virtually no human rights problems in its submission or its comments during the interactive dialogue," said Juliette de Rivero, Geneva advocacy director for Human Rights Watch.

Of special concern at the meeting was China's treatment of ethnic minorities who live within its borders. China has been criticized for its handling of riots in Tibet last spring and for ongoing arrests and executions of people the government labels as suspected terrorists in the Muslim region of Xinjiang in the country's far west.

Some delegates asked China about reports that Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims were facing increasing restrictions on their freedom of religion, culture and expression following last year's violence. Li said the Chinese government would not allow torture to be used against ethnic or religious minorities.

Pu Zhiqiang, a human rights lawyer in Beijing, said China's human rights performance should be looked at in historical context.

"China has showed relatively more tolerance on expanding civil society," Pu said. For instance, one might criticize the fact that the house of Zhang Zuhua, one of the original signers of the Charter 08 pro-democracy petition, was searched and some of his possessions confiscated. But "compared to 20 years ago, China wouldn't even acknowledge that 'human rights' exist. So we can see China has moved forward."

Chen Shiqiu, who has served as a Chinese government-appointed adviser to U.N. groups looking into the promotion and protection of human rights, agreed that the fact that China submitted a report at all is a big step.

The "Chinese government is trying its best to realize human rights. It's a long-term, never-ending job -- not even one country can say it has achieved human rights," Chen said. "I think China's human rights level has been constantly improving, year by year."

Researcher Liu Liu in Beijing contributed to this report.

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