Open Letter Calls for Ratification of Human Rights Covenant (Updated)

Ahead of the National People’s Congress annual session next month, during which Xi Jinping is expected to take over as state president, a group of 100 prominent intellectuals, journalists, and lawyers have penned an open letter calling on the NPC to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The ICCPR is one of the key documents making up the United Nations’ international bill of human rights, and signatories who ratify it commit to protecting basic political rights including right to life, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, right to due process and a fair trial, and electoral rights. The full text of the covenant can be found here. China signed the covenant on October 5, 1998. Upon ratification, the Chinese government would be obligated to reform domestic law to ensure the enforcement of the rights named in the covenant. From the China Media Project:

The language of the open letter is reasoned and constructive, outlining China’s past achievements on human rights, including the Chinese Communist Party’s early pledge to “fight for human rights and freedom.”

We understand from inside sources that this letter was originally intended for a Thursday release through a prominent Chinese newspaper. Authorities, however, learned of the letter by late Monday and the authors had no choice but to release it to the public today.

Current signers of the letter include prominent legal scholar He Weifang (贺卫方), economist Mao Yushi (茅于轼), activist and scholar Ran Yunfei (冉云飞), well-known lawyers Pu Zhiqiang (浦志强) and Xu Zhiyong (许志永), investigative reporter Wang Keqin (王克勤), author Wang Lixiong (王力雄) and many, many others. This is a laundry list of some of China’s most prominent and influential pro-reform figures.

And from CMP’s draft translation of the letter:

As a Permanent Member of the United Nations Security Council, China has always been an active initiator and participant in the International Bill of Human Rights. China’s government played an important role in the formulation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). International human rights standards are therefore not imported products but in fact include the achievements of Chinese culture and the Chinese people. The signing of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 15 years ago demonstrated even more our country’s serious commitment to the protection of basic human rights as a responsible world power. Afterwards, both President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao said openly on numerous occasions both at home and overseas that China would immediately take the legal steps to ratify the treaty once the conditions were right. In the beginning of 2008, more than 10,000 Chinese citizens signed a call for the ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. And so there is no longer any need to vacillate. In order to adapt to trends in human rights development, live up to our government’s pledges and answer the demands of the people, in order to behave in a manner consistent with a major power, we must join the treaty without hesitation, with a positive and decisive attitude.

We will post a link to CMP’s full translation once it become available. This is not the first time activists and lawyers in China have called on the government to ratify the ICCPR and the government itself has announced plans for ratification.

UPDATE (11:20 pm PST February 26): The New York Times has reported on the petition:

The petition was the latest display of the demands for political change confronting China’s new leadership. Several people who signed it said they hoped to press Mr. Xi and his colleagues to live up to vows of greater respect for the rule of law and citizens’ rights that Mr. Xi and other officials have made since he became Communist Party leader in November, when Mr. Hu retired from that post.

“This has become increasingly important because on the one hand violations of rights have become so common, while on the other hand citizens’ awareness of their rights has risen sharply,” said Cui Weiping, a translator and essayist in Beijing who signed the petition. “This proposal is really quite mild,” said Ms. Cui, who formerly taught at the Beijing Film Academy. “I see this as giving the government a chance to show that it is willing to make improvements.”

See also a report from BBC.

Tea Leaf Nation has also translated netizen comments on the document, which has been distributed on blogs and other websites inside China:

From comments on Mr. He’s blog as well as scattered discussions on Weibo, it is possible to glean a preliminary sense of Chinese Web users’ reaction to the bold move. Many wrote quick expressions of their “resolute,” “intense,” or “eternal” support.

Others, however, were more cynical. Although the “awakening rights consciousness” the letter describes is real–one netizen’s political manifesto went viral months ago–the phenomenon cuts both ways. As Chinese grow more aware of their legal rights, they also grow more aware of the ways in which those rights are not honored in practice. One commenter wrote, “I think our constitution and our laws aren’t bad, but they haven’t been well implemented.” Another put it less delicately: “Right now, everyone knows that respect for the constitution and protection of individual rights are a joke. ”