China's human rights 'action plan' short on any action, say rights groups

China's National Human Rights Action Plan of the the past two years amounts to 'a series of unfulfilled promises,' Human Rights Watch says in a review of the plan's impact published Tuesday.

Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP/File
In this file photo taken on April 7, 2010, Gao Zhisheng, a human rights lawyer, gestures as he spoke during his first meeting with the media since he resurfaced two prior, at a tea house in Beijing, China. Chinese police are alleged to have tortured Mr. Gao Zhisheng.

A two-year government “action plan” to protect human rights in China has proved to be “largely a series of unfulfilled promises,” a leading international human rights watchdog has found.

Over the past two years, when the National Human Rights Action Plan (2009-2010) was in force, “the government has systematically continued to violate many of the most basic rights the document addresses,” says Human Rights Watch in a review of the plan’s influence published Tuesday.

Local human rights activists agree. “There has been no improvement in the Chinese human rights situation over the past two years,” says Teng Biao, an activist lawyer and teacher. “On the contrary, things have been going backwards.”

The Information Office of the State Council, China’s cabinet – the body that drew up the NHRAP in April 2009 – did not respond to requests for comment on its implementation.

When it was first published, some rights activists saw the plan as an encouraging sign that the Chinese government was recommitting itself to rights enshrined in China’s constitution and law.

Just a PR exercise?

Instead, it has turned out to be “more of a public relations exercise than a meaningful tool for protecting and promoting human rights” says Sophie Richardson, Human Rights Watch’s Asia advocacy director.

It did not protect over 100 activists who were detained, put under house arrest, or subjected to police surveillance after imprisoned writer Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel peace prize, the report points out.

That wave of repression “shows the chasm between the aspirations embodied in the NHRAP and the government’s actual behavior,” says the report. “The government has in fact significantly rolled back key civil and political rights.”

Forced confessions still a problem

Though the government plan pledged to prohibit “the extraction of confessions by torture,” torture continues to be a problem, government officials acknowledge. Last Saturday, a vice president of the Supreme Peoples Court, Zhang Jun was quoted by government radio as saying the court would henceforth strike down death sentences in cases where evidence had been collected illegally.

“Forced confessions do exist in reality and lawyers sometimes state in court that torture has been used,” Mr. Zhang said, according to China National Radio.

The human rights plan also promised to punish officials guilty of “illegal, wrongful, or prolonged detention.” This has not deterred government officials from “disappearing” prominent human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who has not been seen or heard from since last April.

At that time he recounted to a journalist from the Associated Press how he had been beaten and mistreated during the previous 14 months of secret detention by Chinese security forces.

The Human Rights Watch review also points out that blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng has been kept under house arrest, incommunicado, since he finished serving a four year prison term last September, and that Liu Xiaobo’s wife has also not been allowed to leave her home since her husband was awarded the Nobel prize.

“We can see from the government’s actions over the past two years that the plan has been a failure,” says Pu Zhiqiang, a lawyer who has taken on a number of politically sensitive cases. “It may have started with good intentions, but the authorities’ concrete behavior has been going backwards.

“The plan was just a gesture to the world,” adds Mr. Teng. “It was designed just to throw sand in peoples’ eyes.”

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