Louise Arbour, the UN human rights commissioner, used a softer approach today as she opened a symposium on the issue in Beijing. Arbour did not mention China specifically, but she stressed that leaders across Asia must start to see the observance of human rights as a priority.
Addressing the issue of why human rights are so crucial, Arbour said: "In essence, their importance lies in the fact that they are designed to articulate a common approach to a complex problem, an approach that will assist states from a position of shared regional values to address shortcomings in their own national frameworks, so as to allow the individuals to enjoy their rights in full, and to obtain effective redress when those rights are denied. This is the target we must have in our sights today.”
Arbour, during her visit, is expected to press China to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The convention, which entered into force in 1976, obliges signatories to protect the basic human rights of all persons under their jurisdiction regardless of race, color, gender, national origin, or political opinion.
The convention also commits signatory countries to offer anyone who feels their rights have been violated an opportunity for judicial redress. Torture and other punishments must also be abolished and all residents must enjoy equal rights under the law. China signed the document in 1998 but has not ratified it.
Human rights groups say China regularly violates many of the treaty’s tenets. They most often accuse China of preventing free speech, of abusing the rights of ethnic and religious minorities, and of failing to guarantee judicial due process to those accused of crimes. China, by its own statistics, leads the world in the number of executions it conducts annually. It also leads the world in the number of imprisoned journalists.
Chinese officials -- on occasion -- have acknowledged some shortcomings. But they say international human rights advocates are putting the cart before the horse. They note that China -- through its economic reforms over the past two decades -- has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, providing them with clean water, abundant food, and decent housing. These, they argue, are the most basic human rights and will remain a priority for the current Chinese leadership.
That was the case made by Chinese State Councillor Tang Jiaxuan today, the most senior government official at the Beijing conference. "Poverty is the main barrier to the progress of human rights in the region," Tang said. "Thus, we have no choice but to consider development -- improving economic, social, and cultural conditions -- as our most important task. In short, we must use development to push forward the progress of human rights."
Tang said that for most Asian countries, including China, poverty and backwardness remain the biggest hurdle to surmount before full civil liberties can be extended to everyone.