China Eases Through U.N. Human Rights ‘Review’

By Patrick Goodenough | February 10, 2009 | 4:58am EST

The Palais des Nations in Geneva, home to the United Nations Human Rights Council. (UN Photo)

( – A United Nations “review” of China’s human rights record this week highlighted the weakness of a new procedure that was supposed to be the chief improvement in the U.N.'s reformed human rights system, critics say.
As its allies – including countries whose own rights records are widely criticized – rallied in support, Beijing’s 15-person delegation at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva rejected allegations of suppressing dissent, restricting free speech and repressing minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang.
“There is no censorship in China,” Chinese officials declared, adding that citizens are free to worship and to follow whatever religion they choose.
Declaring that China was “fully committed to the promotion and protection of human rights,” Chinese envoy Li Baodong said those making the allegations – some Western and Latin American states raised concerns during the review – were “politicizing” human rights issues.
China won praise and backing from countries including Sudan, Cuba, Iran, Burma, Egypt and Zimbabwe.
The three-hour discussion Monday was the first time China has gone through the “universal periodic review” (UPR) since the Human Rights Council was established in 2006, replacing the widely-discredited Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR).
The universal periodic review was hailed at the time as a valuable, unprecedented mechanism to examine the human rights records of all 192 of the world’s states.
It aims to look at each country’s institutional framework for promoting and protecting human rights and to identify “achievements, best practices, challenges and constraints.”
Each review is based on three reports, provided ahead of time by the government in the spotlight, U.N. rights experts and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). A three-hour “dialogue” then takes place between representatives of the government and the 47 council members, with countries not on the council also able to take part. Each review is facilitated by a “troika” of three states.
Each country will be examined every four years. (The first U.S. review is scheduled for late 2010.)
Criticisms of the UNCHR included that fact that countries like China simply sidestepped censure by garnering enough support to block attempts by the U.S. or other Western nations to scrutinize their records. Meanwhile, Cuba and others complained that the U.S. was too powerful to face thorough examination.
The universal periodic review (UPR) was put forward as an answer to these problems. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the mechanism “must help prevent the distrust that surrounded the work of the Commission on Human Rights in its final years.”
But, 10 months after the UPR process began, its flaws remain glaringly obvious, critics say.
U.N. Watch, a Geneva-based NGO that closely monitors the Human Rights Council, carried out a comprehensive evaluation of the UPR, and said the mechanism was being widely misused.
“While the U.N. promised to reform itself with a procedure that would hold all countries to account on an objective and equal basis, and help human rights victims worldwide, instead the council has turned into a mutual praise society, giving a free pass to the world’s worst abusers,” U.N. Watch director Hillel Neuer said Monday.
During China’s review, Iran praised its “efforts to promote human rights” while Cuba called China “exceptional” and encouraged it to enforce “strict compliance with law … to prevent people disguised as human rights activists from trying to destroy the state.”
Other countries’ reviews also have seen repressive regimes cover for each other.
“In the current session alone, we saw Libya praise Cuba for ‘promoting freedom of thought and expression,’ when Havana continues to keep human rights defenders and journalists behind bars, and Chinese praise for Saudi Arabia’s record on women’s rights, when they can neither vote nor drive a car,” Neuer said.
Democracies like India and South Africa were further “undermining the process by congratulating countries for practices that deserve condemnation,” he added.
Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China, noted that some countries had been able to put human rights issues onto the table during China’s review.
But, she said, the Chinese delegates’ response, including their insistence that there was “no torture, no censorship, and no ethnic conflict” in China, had raised “serious questions about credibility and good faith.”
The “troika” overseeing China’s review, comprising India, Canada and Nigeria, is due to sign off on China’s report on Wednesday.
Where’s the U.S.?
The Bush administration voted against the resolution that set up the Human Rights Council, arguing that it did not go far enough to prevent recurrence of the problems that plagued the UNCHR.
Although the U.S. was a member of the commission for most of its 60-year history, it did not seek membership on the new council during its first three rounds of elections, in 2006, 2007 and 2008.
The Bush administration was also highly critical of the council, citing in particular a disproportionate focus on Israel. Islamic states which control one-third of the council’s 47 seats have also used it to advance a controversial campaign to ban religious “defamation.”
In his final speech to the U.N. General Assembly last September, President Bush called for an immediate review of the council, which he said “has routinely protected violators of human rights.”
The next council election is scheduled for May, and the Obama administration is expected to stand. Of seven seats earmarked for Western nations, three – currently held by Canada, Germany and Switzerland – are due to become vacant.
Even though the U.S. is not currently a member, it is an observer and does have the right – along with all other observer countries – to participate in the UPR process.
But although more than 30 observer countries did take part in the discussions on China on Monday, the U.S. was not among them.
Earlier, human rights organizations called on the U.S. to take part in the reviews.
“If the U.S. is truly committed to addressing abuses and re-engaging with the world, it should speak out at the Human Rights Council,” Peggy Hicks, global advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, said earlier this month.
The State Department said in a statement Monday that its officials in Geneva were, “consistent with our recent practice,” observing but not participating in the reviews.
“We are mindful of the importance of the UPR process, but the administration is currently reviewing our policy toward the Human Rights Council and its related activities, including UPR,” it said. “We have not made any determinations at this time.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been urged to take up human rights concerns with the Chinese when she visits Beijing next week, during her first trip abroad in her new post.

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