Human rights in China: the 2008 Olympics and beyond

11. Mar 2008

Cecilie Figenschou BakkeDirector, China ProgrammeNorwegian Centre for Human Rights, University of Oslo

Mounting criticism of ChinaThe upcoming Olympic Games in Beijing (8-24 August) have led to increasing criticism of China’s human rights record. When bidding for the Olympics, the Chinese promised that this sports event would be favourable to human rights. Now critics argue that preparations for the Games are instead having a negative impact on the human rights situation in China. Links are also made to foreign policy. As has been widely reported in the international press, Steven Spielberg in February withdrew from his role as artistic advisor to the Games due to China’s failure to do more to end the crisis in Darfur. Also, from inside China activists and academics have written open letters linking the Olympics and human rights. But, as with other signs of protests over the past year, the Chinese government has reacted hard to the initiative. The Chinese Government argues forcefully that sports and politics should not be mixed. But a look at history shows that the powerful IOC and the summer Olympics have often been interconnected with politics, with Mexico City 1968 and Moscow 1980 as two clear examples. While the Olympics is a good opportunity to put more focus on human rights violations in China we must not overlook important Chinese reforms underway with the potential for improved human rights protection. When thousands of foreign journalists have returned home, engagement with China on human rights should and must be continued. It is therefore imperative that we also look beyond August 2008.Dialogue and Chinese compliance with international standardsA few years after the tragedy on Tiananmen Square in Beijing on 4 June 1989, the Chinese government started changing its stance on human rights. In 1996, after a period with heavy international pressure on China, particularly in the United Nations (UN) Commission on Human Rights, Deng Xiaoping stated that the country must be ruled according to law. The same year China signed the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights. Also in 1996/1997 China initiated several bilateral dialogues on human rights with countries such as Norway, Canada, Australia and also the EU. This tactical move resulted in less open criticism of China in the UN. However, it also opened the door to closer engagement and practical cooperation projects on human rights inside China. Today China has ratified 5 of the 9 major UN human rights conventions, and 4 of the 8 core labour standard treaties under the International Labour Organisation (ILO). China is also member of the new Human Rights Council and sits on the board of the ILO. It is also compliant in handing in state reports under the international treaty bodies as required by the UN. But, state reports can be improved, and more civil society actors inside China should be engaged in the reporting processes. Increased transparency and information sharing are key words. Also, on the negative side, China has signed but not ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, one of the core conventions of the UN Bill of Right, and has furthermore been reluctant to receive visits by UN Special Rapporteurs. State ratification of International human rights treaties can open the door to discussing rights protection in a less politicised and more constructive manner. But, to implement rights, legislation, institutions and policy making at the national level are needed.

Implementing human rights in ChinaThere are serious human rights challenges in China today. Some result from a lack of implementation of legislation but also the lack of knowledge and/or political will. Some of the areas that receive attention in western media are problems in criminal justice, extensive use of the death penalty, dissidents and political prisoners, the use of re-education through labour, tight restrictions on civil society, and strict censorship of literature, media and the Internet. Are there any positive developments at all? Poverty reduction is an area where China has received international praise. According to the World Bank, China is responsible for 75% of the poverty reduction in the Developing World since 1980, and according to Chinese statistics more than 200 million Chinese have been lifted out of poverty. The new challenge now is to meet rising inequalities in China and to secure minimum standards and social protection for those who are falling behind in the Chinese economic boom. That the Chinese State “respects and protects human rights” was written into the Chinese Constitution in 2004. Though the Constitution is not directly justiciable, this addition had a strong symbolic effect as recognition of the language of human rights. It also gives a greater degree of political legitimacy to those working with human rights questions. In the field of criminal justice important reforms have been undertaken to conform closer to international standards. Although Chinese authorities reject a discussion on the abolishment of the death penalty, new legislation from 2006 resumed the Supreme Court’s powers to review all death penalty verdicts in China, and there are signs that the number of executions has been reduced slightly. The Criminal Procedure Law is also being revised, and Chinese academics are actively engaged in the process. Two of the hot topics debated are the role of the defence lawyer in criminal proceedings and the use of evidence extracted through forced confessions – or torture. These issues are of great relevance to human rights protection in criminal justice. In the field of workers rights several new legislative steps have also been taken. In January this year a new Labour Contract Law was adopted and the principle of non-discrimination was for the first time included in the Law on Employment Promotion. Work is also underway to train local state officials in charge of labour administration to help with competence building related to assisting the implementation of the law. If the legal provisions on non-discriminated can be effectively implemented, it might help improve the situation of migrant workers and other vulnerable groups suffering under tough and unfair working conditions in China.

Can dialogue and cooperation help? While pressure for increased respect for human rights in China must be upheld, it is also important that the international community works closely with the Chinese side and offers technical assistance where needed. There is a broad range of international and bilateral aid projects in China, working on rule of law and human rights related projects. While some projects cooperate directly with the Chinese government and legal intuitions such as the courts and procuratorate, other activities are conducted through the different UN organs in Beijing. There are also a large number of projects implemented directly in cooperation with civil society and professional groups. The bilateral human rights dialogues which have been running since the mid 1990s can also serve as meeting points where practical cooperation projects between professional groups in China and abroad are initiated. As an example; under the Dialogue between Norway and China, cooperation has developed between the trade unions, employers’ organisations, lawyers associations and academic groups. A majority of the projects are directly linked to international human rights standards and targeted at issues where the UN has raised concern about the situation in China. In this way bilateral projects can help support the multilateral system. The Norwegian Centre for Human (NCHR) China Programme has cooperated with Chinese academic partners since 1997. As clearly reiterated by the Plan of Action for the UN Decade for Human Rights Education (1995-2004); human rights education, training and public information is essential for the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. Linking up to thes
e important aspirations, one of the NCHR China Programme key priorities has been to support human rights research and education at Chinese universities. In 2001 the NCHR, in cooperation with Chinese partners, published the first ever Chinese Textbook on international human rights law. Through Chinese-Nordic cooperation in the period 2001-2008 more than 200 law teachers have been trained, many of them have become engaged in teaching and research on human rights at their home universities. These are just small, small steps forward, but if opportunities to study and research on human rights can be extended to students at Chinese law faculties, this will make the legal profession better prepared to advocate for the adherence to human rights standards in China in the future. Today we see that a core group of human rights competent academics exist in China, who can offer high quality advice and opinions to ongoing reforms inside China.

The 2008 Olympic Games and beyondThe coming Olympics is a good opportunity to put extra light on the human rights situation in China, but there must be a plan for what will happen after the closing ceremonies are concluded and the international journalists, athletes and participants have returned home. We must urge the Chinese authorities to continue its cooperation with the UN, to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and to continue the important social and legal reforms which are underway. The international community must support continued cooperation and activities in the field of rule of law and human rights. Through these cooperation projects the international community can help raise knowledge about international human rights standards in China and offer relevant practical experience from social- and legal developments in other countries. China has come a very along way over the past three decades, as it has developed from a position of isolation to today’s active engagement with international standards and institutions. The coming years will be of great importance and the international community should support initiatives which show that Chinese political will and ambition is put behind the symbolic Constitutional changes and the development of a harmonious society in China.