China’s “Human Rights Action Plan”: Long Awaited, Short in Substance

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China’s “Human Rights Action Plan”: Long Awaited, Short in Substance

On April 13, the State Council Information Office issued China’s first National Human Rights Action Plan (available in English here). While CHRD welcomes the promulgation of this document, which undoubtedly marks one step forward in the Chinese government’s changing attitude toward human rights, we have serious concerns about both the contents of the plan and prospects for implementation of its provisions.

In 22,000 words, the National Human Rights Action Plan covers a broad array of issues, from civil and political rights to human rights education to cooperation with international human rights institutions. However, while the plan provides some notable specifics, including a provision calling for physical separation between detainees and interrogators during questioning and the conducting of physical examinations prior to and following interrogations, the vast majority of the plan lacks details, substance and concrete measures for enforcement and implementation. Furthermore, much of the Action Plan merely reiterates the limited human rights provisions already in place in existing laws and regulations, which largely have not been put into practice. CHRD is also deeply disappointed by the plan’s failure to take concrete steps toward abolishing the Re-education through Labor (RTL) system, protecting human rights activists and ratifying the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, important reforms necessary if the government is indeed serious about improving its human rights record.

After the government announced it would draft the Action Plan in order to fulfill the requirements of participation in the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review, CHRD issued a press release (available here) detailing concerns about the drafting process as well as offering a number of recommendations. What follows is an assessment of the plan in light of the five main recommendations put forward in November 2008.

1) Include in the Action Plan a concrete timetable for the ratification of the ICCPR such that it will not be delayed indefinitely.

  • More than ten years since the Chinese government signed the ICCPR on October 5, 1998, it is still “preparing the ground for approval”, according to the Action Plan. The Action Plan does not offer any indication that the ICCPR will be ratified in the foreseeable future. Ratifying the ICCPR, and making the protections of human rights it outlines legally effective, is critical in making the provisions of the Action Plan more than empty promises.

2) Make a draft of this revised plan available to the public, involve the public in a thorough process of consultation, and incorporate public opinion into the finalized plan.

  • As expected, Chinese citizens were not invited to take part in the process; in fact, those who did found themselves actively barred and punished (see below). How, then, can the government expect citizens to take the provisions of the Action Plan at face value when it promises “democratic and scientific decision-making will be promoted to expand public participation in the decision-making process. In principle, public opinions will be solicited when laws, regulations or public policies which are closely related to the interests of the people are formulated”?

3) Invite members of the public and civil society, especially independent human rights activists and groups, to participate in the revising process.

  • Though the Action Plan claims “broad participation by the relevant government departments and all social sectors”, those organizations that were involved in the drafting of the plan were all government-organized NGOs (GONGOs), and individual academics who participated were hand-picked by authorities. Independent activists who attempted to join in the drafting of the Action Plan, such as Cao Shunli (曹顺利), Zhang Ming (张明) and others, had their application refused and were briefly detained by Beijing police on February 6, 2009. (more information here)

4) Establish a national human rights body, such as an independent National Commission on Human Rights as exists in many other countries, to ensure that the plan will be implemented and effectively monitored

  • The Action Plan does not propose the establishment of such a body. While the Action Plan includes vague promises to “strengthen” and “improve” citizen oversight of various government functions, it makes no mention of how civil society might be involved in monitoring the implementation of any of the human rights provisions put forward by the Action Plan.

5) Address, among other issues, the following pressing concerns:

(a) Take effective measures to implement the Convention against Torture.

  • While the Plan does offer limited measures designed to prevent the extraction of confession by torture, it mostly reiterates laws and mechanisms already in place to check torture which have proved ineffective, as documented by CHRD’s submission to the Committee against Torture in November 2008 (available here). As the National Action Plan was being issued last week, CHRD documented the cases of Zhao Donglian (赵冬莲), a prisoner now hospitalized with kidney damage after being beaten, and An Weifeng (安伟峰), a petitioner who was tortured and beaten in detention. (their cases are available here).

(b) Abolish all systems of arbitrary detention.

  • The Action Plan fails entirely to address RTL, one of the world’s largest and most notorious arbitrary detention systems. Without charge or trial, hundreds of thousands of Chinese are held in forced labor camps every year and suffer brutal working conditions and constant abuse. For more information, please see CHRD’s report, “Re-Education through Labor Abuses Continue Unabated: Reform Overdue,” available here.
  • The plan notes that “the state prohibits illegal detention by law enforcement personnel” but fails to address the fact that current laws are not observed in practice, as police and officials continue to detain citizens in black jails, psychiatric institutions, so-called “legal education classes”, and other facilities without following legal procedure. For more information on arbitrary detention, see CHRD’s report on black jails in Beijing, available here.

(c) End the criminalization of freedom of speech and of the press.

  • Conspicuously absent from the Action Plan is any mention of freedom of expression (along with freedom of association, assembly, the right to demonstrate, and other Constitutionally-guaranteed rights that are restricted or criminalized in practice). While the Action Plan says there will be an “amendment of the Regulations on the Administration of Publications”, it does not give any specifics. The current Regulations unduly infringe upon freedom of the media, and CHRD continues to urge that they be subjected to a comprehensive constitutional review. The Action Plan also fails to address the use of the charge “inciting subversion of state power” to prosecute free expression; for more information on this practice, please see CHRD’s report, available here.

(d) Cease Party and government control of the judiciary.

  • The Action Plan does not provide any concrete plans for comprehensive reform of the judicial system to address the underlying structural causes of the lack of judicial independence. The control of courts at all levels by the Chinese Communist Party Political-Legal Committees (zhengfawei) and the dependence of local courts on the local governments that fund and oversee them and appoint their judges make it impossible for activists and ordinary people to hold local officials accountable for human rights violations.

(e) Honor its commitment to protect human rights defenders.

  • As documented extensively by CHRD, the situation of individuals who advocate for the protection of civil, political, social, economic, environmental, and cultural rights remains dire. The Action Plan fails to affirm the important contribution human rights defenders make to improving human rights, and offers no proposals to protect these activists who are persecuted for their work. For a comprehensive overview of the situation of HRDs in China, please see “Dancing in Shackles: A Report on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders in China”, available here.)

In light of these outstanding issues, CHRD calls on the Chinese government to revise the National Human Rights Action Plan, taking under consideration the points raised above. Especially, CHRD urges the government to allow active participation by members of civil society in both the revision and implementation of the plan such that it results in truly meaningful improvements to human rights in China.

Contact information:

Renee Xia, International Director (English and Mandarin): +852 8191 6937
Wang Songlian, Research Coordinator and English Editor (English, Mandarin and Cantonese): +852 8191 1660

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