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China's UN Human Rights Review: New Process, Old Politics, Weak Implementation Prospects

February 9, 2009

The examination of China’s first Universal Periodic Review (UPR) report by the UN Human Rights Council concluded this morning. The Chinese delegation, led by Chinese Ambassador Li Baodong, dismissed concerns raised by many countries over China’s human rights practices as “politicized statements.” Li asserted that China has continued its efforts to “push for democracy and institutional promotion of the rule of law” so as to advance the civil and political rights of the people, and to “provide fundamental freedom” to the Chinese people. In a rare moment of naming names in such process, a member of the Chinese delegation said that the Chinese government “categorically rejects” Australia’s suggestion that China oppresses Tibetans.

A host of countries, including Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand, raised wide ranging concerns and questions that related to:

  • human rights policies;
  • rule of law concerns, including the lack of an independent judiciary, attacks on lawyers and rights defenders, abuses related to the Reeducation-Through-Labor (RTL) system, the death penalty, and arbitrary detention;
  • freedom of expression, association and religious beliefs;
  • ethnic minorities and vulnerable groups, including women, children, and rural inhabitants;
  • press freedom for domestic and international journalists;
  • access to information, the state secrets system, and Internet censorship; and
  • independent civil society and the consultation process for preparing China’s National Report.

But many countries praised China’s report and efforts in advancing human rights, and took the opportunity to criticize China’s critics as politicizing the process, even as they invoked the ideology and old historical abuses of imperialism and colonialism. They also expressed a tendency to invoke a framework of cultural relativism that undermines international human rights standards and norms.

In response to the concerns raised, high-level delegates from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Supreme People’s Court, Ministry of Justice, Government Information Office of the State Council, National People’s Congress, and Ministry of Public Security declared that:

  • “China is a nation of rule of law and no one is above the law;”
  • “There is no censorship in China,” and the government “encourages” citizens to freely express their opinion;
  • the restrictions on journalists reporting on sensitive cases come not from the government but from the stakeholders;
  • there are comprehensive legal safeguards against the use of torture and there are no black jails in China;
  • the law protects lawyers in their work and no one is attacked for protecting the rights of people;
  • far from discriminating against ethnic minorities, the state in fact gives preferential treatment to them; and
  • people are free to worship in whatever religion they choose.

“The responses of the Chinese delegation raise serious questions about its capacity to engage in a constructive critical dialogue on urgent human rights concerns that have been documented and reported on by a range of UN human rights procedures,” said Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China.

“With respect to advancing human rights, there is no silver bullet, especially no state-driven silver bullet. But despite the politicization of the process, especially by China, some member states were able to put a broad and diverse range of human rights issues on the table,” said Hom. “However, the dismissal of the concerns raised by member states regarding torture, inhumane treatment, freedom of expression and the internet, and situation of ethnic minorities with the categorical response – no torture, no censorship, and no ethnic conflict – raises serious questions about credibility and good faith.”

Background on the Universal Periodic Review (UPR)

In 2006, the UN General Assembly created the Human Rights Council (replacing the old and largely discredited UN Commission on Human Rights) with a mandate to review, on a periodic basis, “the fulfillment by each of the United Nations’ 192 Member States of their human rights obligations and commitments.” Under the new procedure, called the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), each UN member state is reviewed every four years by the Human Rights Council. China was reviewed in the fourth session of the UPR process. The first review session took place in April 2008, the second session in May 2008, and the third session in December 2008.



For more information on China's Universal Periodic Review and related UN work, see: