Historically, China has had tenuous relations with the United Nations and other human rights groups.
But now, China is beginning to open its doors to the United Nations for assistance in addressing human rights issues within the country. In September, the Chinese government released a policy paper, New Progress in the Judicial Protection of Human Rights in China, addressing country-wide human rights concerns and suggesting improvements aimed specifically at the judicial system. In this policy paper, the Chinese government invited United Nations representatives to visit China under full support of the government. The United Nations welcomed the invitation, as it has faced setbacks caused by the Chinese government on previous visits. Conflicting immediately, however, the “selective statistics and unsubstantiated claims” regarding human rights improvements within the country in the policy paper raised questions over China’s dedication to its commitments to the United Nations and its interest in improving human rights conditions within the country. Furthermore, the policy paper was criticized for ignoring the numerous arrests and detentions of human rights activists who have spoken out against oppression over the past several years.
Currently, China is party to six conventions of the United Nations. In addition, China was elected to membership on the Human Rights Council in 2013, to serve until 2016. As a member of the Human Rights Council, China promised to strengthen democracy and promote the protection of civil and political rights; to pursue progress for its peoples’ economic, social and cultural rights; to address and encourage adherence to the policies set forth by the committees of the United Nations; and to protect the rights of all its people, including minority ethnic groups, women, children and persons with disabilities. Despite China’s active involvement in many international committees and treaty bodies, persecution of human rights defenders is a significant concern.
Under the CAT, China has agreed to investigate, prosecute and punish acts of torture and other cruel punishment. This agreement extends to the fair treatment of lawyers and human rights activists. Over the past several years, however, the Chinese government has arrested and detained human rights lawyers and activists. Since July 2015, the Chinese government has arrested or detained at least 317 lawyers, several of whom remain in custody.
In September 2013, human rights activist Cao Shunli was detained in Beijing before leaving the country to participate in a conference in Geneva led by the United Nations addressing human rights issues. Shunli was detained for alleged “unlawful assembly.” After two years in custody, Shunli died of pneumonia, among other illnesses. Her family and other human rights activists were left questioning the treatment she received from the Chinese government while in custody. In May 2014, a prominent Beijing lawyer Pu Zhiqiang was arrested for allegedly “picking quarrels” and creating unrest by commemorating the victims of the Tiananmen Square Protests of June 4, 1989. Additionally, another prominent human rights lawyer, Tang Jingling, was given a five-year prison term for promoting the ideas of non-violent civil disobedience. Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a covenant signed by China, arbitrary arrests or detention are prohibited. In addition, the covenant requires that all arrestees are informed of their offenses and entitled to trial within a reasonable time.
In November of this year, the Chinese Ministry of Justice released revisions to its Management Methods on Law Firms and Management Methods on Lawyers. Through these Management Methods, the Chinese government has attempted to show its support of lawyers and activists; however, the new revisions undermine the role lawyers and activists play in advocating for marginalized persons within the country. These revisions require law professionals to “support the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party” and are forbidden to express any thoughts or options contrary to the political system or officials of China. Human Rights Watch cautions that these revisions weaken and frustrate the role of lawyers in advocating for and protecting the citizens of China. According to Sophie Richardson, the China Director at Human Rights Watch, the revisions severely limit the role of human rights layers, “the new Justice Ministry rules basically tell human rights lawyers that their successful legal tactics are now prohibited. People’s rights can’t be robustly defended when their lawyers can’t draw attention to, or even publicly discuss, their cases.”
China’s stance against lawyers and human rights activists seems to undermine the goals laid out in China’s New Progress in the Judicial Protection of Human Rights in China. By 2020, China aims to help 60 million people out of poverty by improving health standards, decreasing air pollution, putting forth efforts to prevent interrogation by torture and continuing to improve the Chinese judicial system. Without allowing lawyers and activists to advocate for the marginalized groups within Chinese society, however, the outlook for advancement proposed in China’s new policy plan seems grim.