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China’s Election to the Human Rights Council: Challenges and Opportunities Ahead

May 9, 2006

In the General Assembly elections for the 47-member Human Rights Council today that replaces the Commission on Human Rights, the People’s Republic of China was voted in with 146 out of a possible 191 votes, coming in eighth in the Asian Region.

China’s election presents a unique and important opportunity for the promotion of human rights. As an increasingly prominent global player, with political, economic, trade and military ties with numerous countries, China has the potential to promote human rights not only inside China, where 20 percent of the world’s population lives, but also globally. HRIC urges the Chinese government, and all new members of the Human Rights Council, to demonstrate the necessary leadership and political will to ensure that the politicization of human rights under the past Commission on Human Rights do not continue under a new name.

As a candidate for the Human Rights Council, China noted the human rights treaties to which it had acceded, its cooperation with UN mechanisms, the numerous bilateral and regional exchanges it is engaged in, as well as conferences it has participated in. While there has been some improvement in the human rights situation in China, over the past seventeen years, HRIC has documented continued and increasing detentions, arrests, and other forms of persecution for petitioners, political dissidents, religious practitioners and unofficial groups, journalists, lawyers and human rights defenders.

HRIC notes two concerns regarding the commitments China made as candidate to the Human Rights Council. First, China’s stated preference for dialogue and exchange as an approach to human rights problems is in tension with multilateral and international law-based systems such as the Human Rights Council. Bilateral, regional and multilateral human rights processes are not mutually exclusive, but must all be actively engaged on the basis of the universal human rights obligations of all states. Second, China’s position that countries can differ on human rights due to cultural and historical differences undermines the universality and indivisibility of human rights.

China sat on the widely criticized Commission on Human Rights every year between 1982 and 2006. In addition to its structure and working methods, the success of the new Human Rights Council will depend on the political will and commitment of its members, including China. “This is the time for China to move beyond rhetoric and demonstrate a genuine commitment to respect and promote human rights,” HRIC Executive Director, Sharon Hom, said. “It can begin at home by respecting freedom of expression and promoting diverse and independent civil society voices, and instituting specific mechanisms to monitor the implementation of international human rights obligations. Today’s vote is only the beginning; the real test is whether China and the other members of the Council will actively, transparently and comprehensively engage in the universal periodic human rights review process. Otherwise, they are just pouring old wine into new bottles.”