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Activists Blast Obama Admin’s Human Rights ‘Dialogues’ with China

Rights group: ‘What meaning do ‘human rights dialogues’ have, if they have done nothing to improve human rights conditions in China?’

Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping
Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping / AP
• August 13, 2015 5:00 am

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The U.S. State Department’s annual human rights dialogues with the Chinese government are not publicly promoted and are ineffective at improving conditions in the country, according to Chinese activists and rights lawyers who criticized the upcoming event.

This year’s dialogue will take place on Thursday and Friday in Washington, D.C., amid a widening crackdown by the Chinese Communist Party against dissidents.

Police have interrogated more than 300 activists and human rights lawyers in the last month. While most have been released, at least 23 individuals are still in criminal detention or are being held at unknown locations.

The human rights dialogue comes amid withering criticism of the State Department and Obama administration on other rights issues, including human trafficking. Senators have threatened to subpoena all information about the agency’s trafficking report, which reportedly inflated the assessments of several strategically important countries that have also failed to crack down on forced labor and prostitution.

In an editorial published on Monday, the non-governmental organization (NGO) Rights Defense Network wrote that previous dialogues "have had virtually no impact on improving human rights conditions in mainland China."

"This meeting, which should be inspiring huge hopes by people who long for progress on rights in China, is no longer drawing any attention," the group wrote. "So we want to ask the question: What meaning do such ‘human rights dialogues’ have, if they have done nothing to improve the severe and harsh human rights conditions in China, and if they have become pure formality and an empty exchange of diplomatic rhetoric?"

The Rights Defense Network urged U.S. officials to raise individual cases of political prisoners with the Chinese government and press for "concrete and effective measures for improving human rights."

Prominent dissidents such as Liu Xiaobo are still serving multi-year sentences on politically motivated charges, the group noted, and other detainees have been tortured or denied medical treatment.

Another group of 36 lawyers and activists issued a statement that was critical of the dialogue. While past events have "provided platforms for the two governments to exchange views and drew public attention through the media," they "did not substantially help improve China’s human rights situation, which, on the contrary, has deteriorated in the past two years."

The lawyers requested that Beijing release all political prisoners to demonstrate its commitment to the dialogue and ensure the safety of activists who have publicly commented about the event. They also called on U.S. officials to press their Chinese counterparts on new national security laws, which critics say are designed to curtail the rights of dissidents.

"Both sides should put forth concrete and verifiable plans to avoid continued persecution of lawyers and activists after the Dialogue," they said.

The State Department said in a press release on Wednesday that the Chinese dialogue "reflects the importance of human rights in the bilateral relationship."

"Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Tom Malinowski and Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs Department of International Organizations and Conferences Director-General Li Junhua will lead their respective interagency delegations in the dialogue," the release said. "During the dialogue, the two sides will discuss rule of law, freedom of religion, freedom of expression, Internet freedom, the rights of ethnic minorities, and other human rights issues."

A department spokesperson confirmed that Secretary of State John Kerry will make remarks at the event that are closed to the press.

The "U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue" has tended to attract more attention than the human rights event. Secretary of State John Kerry attended several sessions at the economic dialogue in June and provided remarks.

However, Kerry might not be able to attend all of the human rights dialogue with China this week, as he is scheduled to appear at the reopening of the U.S. embassy in Cuba on Friday, following the normalization of ties between Havana and Washington.

Many in the U.S. human rights community are critical of the Obama administration’s approach to China. Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, wrote in Foreign Policy that U.S. officials failed to publicly name individuals who were abused by the Chinese government.

"Some senior U.S. officials shy away from causing embarrassment to senior Chinese officials, arguing that it is counterproductive," she wrote. "It’s hard to know that definitively, especially when former political prisoners tell us and others that their treatment improved when their cases were publicly raised, suggesting that embarrassment does prompt a change in behavior."

Yang Jiechi, Chinese state councilor, said at the economic dialogue that, "in advancing human rights, China’s achievements are there for all to see."

Published under: China