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HRIC: UN Secretary General’s China Visit Needs Real Human Rights Focus

May 19, 2006

United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan will make his seventh official visit to China this week, during which he will meet with Chinese President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao, State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan and other top officials. The visit closely follows China’s election to the new Human Rights Council, as well as a growing number of visits to China by UN human rights mechanisms. According to news reports, discussions will include nuclear non-proliferation issues, cooperation between China and the UN, UN reform and various issues of regional concern.

Although human rights issues are not explicitly on the agenda as announced, the Secretary General’s visit from May 19 through May 23 presents an important opportunity to press China on these issues. At the same time, it also poses the danger of yet another high-level visit that produces mainly symbolic benefits for the current Chinese leadership.

In the course of previous UN visits, and visits by Chinese officials abroad, China has taken the consistent position that in tandem with its economic reform, China is making a serious effort to implement human rights. Yet the human rights situation continues to deteriorate, and especially when the international spotlight dims on China. Following President Hu Jintao’s visit to the United States last month, human rights defenders, including petitioners, lawyers, journalists, religious practitioners and others, continue to be detained or sentenced to lengthy prison terms. The international community needs to support these brave individuals by not allowing these high-level visits to overshadow ongoing human rights abuses.

The Secretary General’s visit should be accompanied by careful monitoring of human rights developments in China before and after the visit. Past visits and missions have been ineffective in producing greater receptiveness on China’s part to the recommendations and findings of these missions. The Special Rapporteur on Torture, who visited China in 2005 following 10 years of negotiations with the Chinese government, reported that despite improvements in some areas, the use of torture was still widespread in detention facilities. In response, an official from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that China could not accept the Special Rapporteur’s conclusion and asked him to “correct” it. In the case of recommendations of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which visited China in 1997 and 2004, the Chinese government has taken few steps to implement recommendations such as taking steps to eliminate Reeducation Through Labor.

“The Secretary General must explicitly raise human rights issues during his visit and ask for demonstrated real progress on outstanding international commitments,” said HRIC Executive Director Sharon Hom. “Of course, progress on human rights is hard to measure, but several concrete steps can be made, such as ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which China has promised repeatedly since 1997, and even during a previous visit of the Secretary General. In addition, as several international bodies have urged, China can establish a national commission on human rights to monitor and promote progress.”