US-China Human Rights Talks Begin in Washington

The US State Department has promised to raise issues including labour rights, rule of law, freedom of religion and expression and the cases of Chen Guangcheng and Tibet during two-day annual rights talks that began in Washington on Monday. From AFP:

“We consider that this is an integral part of all of the work we do to try to build a strong partnership and cooperation across the board with China,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters.

“We are always, whether it’s at the presidential level, the secretarial level, or at this working group level, raising not only individual cases, but our concerns about rule of law, justice for individuals, equality, Tibet.”

She added that being able to talk forthrightly about human rights in all of its aspects” showed that the US relationship with China was “maturing.”

The Chinese Foreign Ministry released a statement saying that “China is willing to discuss and exchange views on human rights issues with the United States on the basis of equality and mutual respect.” Issues it will bring to the table, based on China’s 2012 Human Rights Record of the United States, may include US military actions and drone strikes, the shootings of Trayvon Martin and cinema-goers in Aurora, and persistently high unemployment.

Human rights organisations expressed scepticism at the value of the talks, arguing that they simply provide a fig leaf for continued abuses and stalled reforms in China. From Human Rights Watch, for example:

“The crisis of self-immolations by Tibetans, stalled legal reform, and the latest disingenuous ‘human rights action plans,’ have been put on the agenda by the US,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “But another round of exchanges, particularly if there is no public discussion of the talks afterward, will allow the Chinese government to say it is engaging on rights issues while putting off necessary reforms that create a country with the rule of law and respect for basic rights.”

[…] Many of the United States’ and other governments’ past human rights dialogues with China have been largely a rhetorical shell, lacking in accountability, transparency, and clear benchmarks for progress. The Chinese government often points to these dialogues as a human rights “deliverable,” an end in itself, or insists that human rights issues can only be discussed in the context of a dialogue. None of the governments that pursue these dialogues with the Chinese government have established benchmarks to ensure meaningful progress.

Similarly, from Chinese Human Rights Defenders:

With so many rounds of the human rights dialogue having preceded the one that will begin on Monday, Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) asks what, if anything, has been achieved by these talks? Are there any tangible results or positive outcomes that the US government can point to? Or is the only “result” merely the convening of the dialogue? CHRD strongly believes that a systematic and public assessment of the usefulness of these dialogues is long overdue.

Indeed, some Chinese human rights advocates have told CHRD that they do not expect the human rights dialogue to bring about tangible benefits since, in their opinion, the Chinese government has no interest in improving human rights and faces little pressure to do more than just “enter into dialogue.” Still, the talks could be a useful endeavor if they were more open to members of China’s civil society. For example, some activists have suggested that the dialogue take into account views and ideas of Chinese human rights activists, and that officials from both countries should hold press conferences and respond to questions at the end of the dialogue.

In a Global Times interview on Sino-Australian rights talks held earlier this month, Shanghai Institute for International Studies research fellow Xue Lei argued that dialogue could indeed be considered an end in itself, and cited Beijing’s recent National Human Rights Action Plan as a more tangible result of rights dialogue.

The purpose of human rights dialogue is to reduce the lack of understanding through communication and exchanges. From this perspective, the continuation of the dialogue itself could be regarded as a kind of outcome.

[…] Objectively speaking, various dialogue mechanisms have contributed to some extent to human rights protection in China.

One critical aspect is to promote the convergence in concepts and discourses on human rights between China and international community. Recently the Chinese government published its National Human Rights Action Plan (2012-15). It can be seen by a quick glance at the table of contents that the whole human rights discourse in China is conforming to the system for international protection of human rights established by various international covenants and treaties. And human rights dialogue has also led to institutional improvement in certain areas, for instance, in the area of criminal justice.

Human Rights Watch’s Phelim Kine, however, argued that the new action plan actually marks “a step backward for universal rights protection” and, like the rights international dialogues, lacks real substance.

[The plan] reiterates the Chinese government’s existing public position that it “respects the principle of universality of human rights.” However, the “principle of practicality” places limits on the government’s enforcement of those rights by stating that it “also upholds [those rights] proceeding from China’s national conditions and new realities to advance the development of its human rights cause on a practical basis.” The absence of any criteria for “national conditions,” “new realities” or a “practical basis” for universal rights enforcement effectively renders this “principle” little more than an opt-out clause.

[…] The new NHRAP, which is supposed to run through 2015, mirrors its predecessor’s ambiguous statements of intent unsupported by any concrete measures for enforcement. Although the plan’s civil and political rights section calls for “preventing unnecessary detention” through judicial review of the legal necessity of such incarceration, it provides no mechanisms or guidelines to ensure that Chinese government officials and security agencies adhere to possible recommendations for detainee release.