China faces unprecedented UN human rights scrutiny

An examination of China's record in Geneva Monday will test the country's willingness to answer international criticism.

China will face unprecedented scrutiny of its human rights record Monday in a key test of Beijing's readiness to answer international criticism over its treatment of political opponents.

Beijing has sent a large, high-level delegation to Geneva to defend China's human rights performance in the face of questioning from members of the United Nations Human Rights Council.

"This is an important test both for China and for the United Nations," says Nicholas Bequelin, a China expert with Human Rights Watch.

Some observers doubt that the formal and generally nonconfrontational UN body will actually put China on the spot for the wide-ranging human rights violations of which its authoritarian government stands accused.

The United States declined to join the council when it was formed in 2006, saying the body was toothless. President Obama has said he will reconsider that decision.

Monday's meeting "will be a kabuki dance, a farce," argues Brett Schaefer, an analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, unless China takes foreign criticism more seriously than it has done until now.

Human rights activists here and abroad, however, express hopes that Monday's meeting will indeed help speed China's efforts to improve its rights record.

"International pressure is very helpful and very, very necessary to improve the human rights situation here," says Li Heping, a well-known human rights lawyer who has himself been kidnapped and beaten up for his work.

"The UN report that comes out of this meeting could have a positive impact" if it reflects independent assessments of China's record, he adds.

Even if Chinese diplomats refuse to answer the hard questions that some European and other delegations plan to put at the council meeting, "that would be good for us to show them up for what they are," says Juliette de Rivero, a Human Rights Watch activist in Geneva.

The Human Rights Council replaced the discredited UN Human Rights Commission, where China had always been able to mobilize its diplomatic allies in procedural motions to avoid any examination at all of its human rights record.

Under a new system known as the Universal Periodic Review, every UN member's record is automatically scrutinized by the council every four years. Even this procedure, however, is not immune from manipulation.

When Cuba came up for examination last Thursday, its allies on the council took up most of the meeting with paeans of praise for the Caribbean island's achievements in healthcare and education, leaving little time for critics to ask questions about political prisoners or freedom of speech.

China could encourage its friends to adopt the same tactic. In that case, warns Mr. Schaefer, the event will be "more of a show than a substantial assessment of China's human rights progress."

Several countries, however, including Canada, Denmark, Holland, and Norway, have signaled their intention to ask searching questions and to make pointed recommendations that the Chinese authorities should do more to end torture, imprisonment without trial, censorship, and religious persecution.

China's report to the council, which Amnesty International calls a "whitewash" of the real situation, avoids all these issues. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said Beijing looked forward to "a constructive dialogue" with members of the council.

Although China's report is "very disappointing … a cut-and-paste of template positions rather than a credible engagement in discussion," complains Mr. Bequelin, the report of Monday's meeting will include the recommendations that individual council members make during the debate.

China is free to reject all of them, but any that it does accept "will give human rights defenders in China something to push for," Bequelin says. "This process can be meaningful even if it does not get people out of jail overnight."

However Beijing responds to any recommendations, the review of its record has already galvanized activists in China, says Li Fangping, a Beijing lawyer who concentrates on human rights cases.

Some Chinese human rights workers contributed anonymously to submissions that international nongovernmental organizations made to the council in recent months, and one local NGO, Aizhixing, which works with AIDS patients, publicly presented its own critique of China's health system.

"This is the first time that Chinese NGOs have participated in this kind of work" says Mr. Li. "Human rights activists here are playing a more and more important role. That is a trend that cannot be reversed."

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