08/08/2020

China’s white paper on human rights is significant for its omissions

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Photo credit: eureporter.co
Photo credit: eureporter.co

On 8 June 2015, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) released a white paper on its human rights record. Consistent with the previous 11 white papers on human rights, the most recent white paper attempts to hide the PRC’s human rights violations. Previous White Papers have argued that the PRC deserves exceptions from universally accepted human rights. This exception is claimed by adding “Chinese characteristics” to universally accepted values. Most often, Chinese characteristics involve emphasizing the rights of communities at the expense of the individual. Because human rights are needed to protect the most vulnerable, excusing the suffering of a few individuals for the “greater good” cannot be justified.

In the most recent white paper, the PRC did not highlight this claim for an exemption. Instead, the white paper attempted to distract people with numbers that purportedly demonstrated the PRC’s progress in advancing human rights. At times, these numbers were simply irrelevant. Other times, the numbers lacked the context necessary to be relevant. With the exception of sub-sections that addressed ethnic minorities or specific regional issues, the number applied to all of the PRC. By not breaking down the numbers, the PRC implicitly argued that the collective was more important than the individual. The numbers also hid the impact of the PRC’s policies on the people most threatened by the PRC and most in need of human rights protections.

For example, the white paper proudly claimed that the number of Chinese citizens that traveled abroad for private purposes increased by almost 20% to just over 110 million people. All people are guaranteed the right to travel by human rights law. In the PRC, Tibetans are denied passports and prohibited from traveling internationally. That Tibetans are not allowed to travel is much more relevant to the right to travel than the number of people allowed to travel abroad.

Similarly, the white paper gave statistics without context. The white paper claims accurately, that the life expectancy has increased and infant and maternal mortality rates have decreased in Tibet. It fails to add that life expectancy and numerous indicators of maternal and child health shows that Tibet is far worse than any area of the PRC. Particularly with life expectancy, where data is available going back to when Tibet was independent, despite a similar starting point, Tibet is now worse off than the PRC. The white paper describes this as evidence of the PRC’s “tremendous achievement.” In another section, the white paper refers to economic growth in “ethnic minority areas” to avoid the fact that migrant workers benefit from economic growth and Tibetans are left behind.

The white paper not only hides evidence of the PRC’s abysmal human rights policy by providing incomplete data. The treatment of Tibetan prisoners and the forcible resettlement of Tibetan nomads are completely ignored. The white paper officially recognizes that torture has occurred in Chinese prisons. In the context of explaining almost 50,000 cases were subject to illegal investigation activities, the white paper acknowledged that confessions were extorted by torture. The emphasis of the section is on effective prison reforms and assumes that opinions correcting illegal tactics, including torture, as sufficient to satisfy the PRC’s international obligations.

Merely issuing opinions condemning torture is not enough. The Convention Against Torture requires that States, including the PRC, take effective measures to prevent torture. Torture includes interrogation tactics that inflict severe pain or suffering and the denial of medical care. Tibetan detainees are subjected to interrogation tactics that include the use of electric batons and the beating of detainee’s feet. Following a shooting in August 2014 in Kardze (Ch: Ganzi) County, injured protesters were denied medical care and died of their injuries days later. Procedural safeguards that only condemn the use of illegal tactics, including torture, cannot effectively end the systematic torture that is present in detention centres and prisons in Tibet.

The white paper claims that the Ministry of Public Security has launched a special program to improve safety in detention centers. These reforms, if they are real, have not reached Tibet. In 2014, the number of Tibetans who died because of their treatment in detention centres increased substantially. Since 2008, 18 knownTibetans have died because of their treatment in detention. Ten known Tibetans died during 2014.

The PRC frequently refers to the resettlement of the Tibetan nomads as a policy success. The contradiction between the PRC’s rhetoric and reality is stark in the white paper. The white paper mentions how the PRC spent hundreds of millions of dollars resettling almost 1 million “impoverished people from poverty-stricken areas.” While not referred directly to Tibetan nomads, the resettlement of Tibetan nomads is frequently cited as a means of lifting them out of poverty. In reality, the forcible resettlement of the nomads forces them to abandon their sustainable lifestyle and into debt. Resettling the nomads harms the environment and risks losing generations of knowledge of how to live on the Tibetan plateau. However, the white paper praises the resettlement while simultaneously praising the training of farmers in the PRC. The PRC can protect human rights and the environment more effectively by not forcing the nomads off their land, and allowing them to continue their traditional way of life.

At times the white paper applied modified international human rights standards. By redefining accepted human rights terms, the white paper sought to justify human rights abuses. The most dramatic redefining is the white paper’s references to “Consultative democracy.” The white paper claims that consultative democracy is a form of democracy unique to China’s socialist system. Essentially, claiming the right to democracy with Chinese characteristics. Consultative democracy includes the orderly participation of citizens in governance. The euphemistic references to “orderly participation” have been used to justify restrictions of online communications and the right to freedom of assembly and associations. Framing the PRC’s restrictions on human rights as democratic allows the PRC to claim that the restrictions are necessary in a democratic society. Any restriction on a qualified right, including the rights to manifest religion, assembly, and expression, must be necessary in a democratic society. Redefining “democracy” gives the PRC more backing to justify restricting rights. Because Article 5 of both the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights prohibit interpretations that undermine the rights and freedoms in the covenants, the PRC cannot make impermissible restrictions permissible. By redefining “democracy” the PRC is making it easier to speciously justify impermissible restrictions.

Following the terrorist attack in 2001 many States adopted laws designed to prosecute and prevent terrorism. The PRC, and other States, seized the opportunity to relabel human rights defenders and critics of the government as terrorist. The relabeling was designed to justify and hide human rights abuses. The white paper continued this practice. The white paper announced 558 cases involving 712 defendants who were charged with “inciting separatism and terrorism.” The white paper mentioned specific attacks to justify the prosecutions. However, in 2014, Tibetans were given long prison sentences despite having no connection to terrorism. For example, Tsangyang Gyatso, was sentenced to 12 years in prison for “inciting separatism.” In reality he was accused of contacting outsiders and inciting a protest. Even if true, both allegations are protected by human rights and unrelated to terrorism. By redefining terrorist, the white paper gives the PRC grounds to claim to be fighting a substantial terrorist threat and continue imprisoning non-violent activists and human rights defenders.

On the whole the white paper on human rights progress is a continuation of the same tactics in previous white papers. It seeks to make the PRC appear to be a champion of human rights by providing misleading information and ignoring the real human rights situation in the PRC and the real purpose of human rights protections.