Margaret K. Lewis is a law professor at Seton Hall University.
On Nov. 6, the United Nations Human Rights Council will review China’s record just as human rights in the country are under intensified attack. The review also comes one month after the 20th anniversary of China signing the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a foundational treaty that sets forth a range of protections for freedom of speech, assembly and religion. China not only has failed to ratify the ICCPR but instead is increasingly undermining the rights therein. The international community should respond by calling on China to remove its signature.
Prior to its first review before the Human Rights Council in 2009, China reported that the “relevant departments are carrying out necessary legislative, judiciary and administrative reforms to create the conditions for the early ratification of ICCPR.” In 2013, China again reported that the “relevant organs of the national government are continuing steadily to pursue administrative and legislative reforms in preparation for ratifying the Convention.” Before its third review this fall, China once again said that the “relevant departments of the government are steadily continuing to advance administrative and judicial reforms in preparation for [ICCPR] ratification.”
You get the picture. But these claims contradict reality. Since the 2009 review, China imprisoned Liu Xiaobo, a political activist who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 and died last year, and for years arbitrarily deprived his wife of freedom of movement; criminally convicted and extrajudicially disappeared hundreds of lawyers and other rights defenders; and expanded the Chinese Communist Party’s ability to deprive people of liberty without judicial process. The worsening climate for civil and political rights is seen most starkly as 1.1 million Uighurs and members of other Muslim minority groups are held in so-called reeducation camps.
It’s not unusual to have a period between signing a treaty and becoming a full party: The United States took nearly 15 years to ratify the ICCPR and has yet to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child. But during this interim period a country must, at a minimum, refrain from acts that would defeat the object and the purpose of the treaty. The Chinese government’s intolerance for civil and political rights guts the protections in the covenant: What we are seeing is retrogression and repression, not progression and protection.
Encouraging China to retract its signature to a major treaty might seem counterintuitive to the promotion of human rights. But pressing China to end the charade that it is working toward ratification would send important messages to the Chinese government, the Chinese people and the international community.
Rather than repeat the standard refrain that China should ratify the treaty, giving Beijing a sharp “sign back on to the ICCPR when you are serious” rebuke would tell it that other countries are not buying explanations that gloss over egregious human rights abuses.
This message would also show people in China — or at least those who are able to obtain news outside the state-run media — that the international community is concerned about domestic developments and does not take at face value the government’s hollow assurances.
An affirmation that fundamental principles in the treaty are inviolable would further signal that U.N. members take seriously the rights demanded in the treaty. Even those rights, like freedom of expression, for which some limitations are permitted, have core meanings that are not subject to individual interpretation. The Human Rights Committee has stressed that the allowed restrictions “may never be invoked as a justification for the muzzling of any advocacy of multi-party democracy, democratic tenets and human rights.”
A strong message is all the more necessary as China pursues an active role in international institutions and promotes a “no one-size-fits-all” approach to human rights. The combination of China’s deteriorating human rights record and its efforts to redefine what human rights mean give reason to reconsider the long-standing emphasis on inclusion, i.e., that it is better to have broad, even if notably flawed, participation in treaties.
We are at a moment when the concern is not merely safeguarding individuals’ human rights but also protecting the existence of those rights themselves. Rejecting the dilution of rights begins with reinvigorating bedrock principles. The members of the Human Rights Council have an opportunity to do this when China appears before them by opting for forthright pushback instead of polite encouragement.
For the sake of people whose civil and political rights are being denied in China, I hope the day comes soon when the Chinese government can ratify the ICCPR in good faith. But that day is not today. The best path for the international community is to embrace the maxim long used by Chinese leaders to “seek truth from facts”: The truth is that China is further from ratifying the ICCPR today than it was when it signed it in 1998.