Saturday marked both International Human Rights Day and one year since Chinese intellectual Liu Xiaobo received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work promoting human rights and democracy in China. Human Rights Day, which commemorates the 1948 adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), is an occasion to affirm our commitment to advancing the values of human rights common to us all. Nobel Laureate Liu’s continued imprisonment in a Chinese jail is a stark reminder of the urgency of this task.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrines fundamental human rights standards, such as the freedoms of expression, association and religion and freedom from arbitrary detention. The Chinese government - a signatory to the declaration - disregards its obligations to uphold those rights and continues to punish citizens who defend them. Mr. Liu is a case in point.
Chinese authorities took Mr. Liu into custody in December 2008, one day before Chinese citizens released Charter 08, a treatise calling for political reform and human rights protections in China. Authorities cited Mr. Liu’s involvement in the charter and six essays he had written as the basis for sentencing him in 2009 to 11 years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power,” the longest known sentence for that “crime.” The case was marred by severe violations of due process under both Chinese and international law.
Mr. Liu’s “crime” was speaking out against Chinese government repression and promoting peaceful reform. Other Chinese citizens are held in prison or under house arrest for acts such as worshipping in house churches, organizing labor protests, petitioning against official abuses or challenging China’s barbaric one-child-per-couple policy.
Chinese citizens who aim to defend their rights, promote reform or advocate on behalf of others - actions that embody the very spirit of the UDHR and Human Rights Day - have been particularly vulnerable in the past year. As democracy movements brought new freedoms in other parts of the world, Chinese authorities launched one of the harshest crackdowns in recent memory against lawyers and activists.
Other rights advocates, like Mr. Liu, were the victims of earlier repression and continue to suffer in detention, their whereabouts unknown, or under illegal house arrest. Authorities “disappeared” lawyer Gao Zhisheng in 2009 for his efforts defending workers and religious believers. Local authorities currently hold blind, self-trained legal advocate Chen Guangcheng under extralegal house arrest following more than four years in prison for his work to expose abuses and the coercion inherent in the one-child-per-couple policy. Mongolian activist Hada, who had organized peaceful protests for minority rights, suffers in a similar legal limbo as he remains in custody a year since his 15-year prison sentence expired.
Other Chinese citizens escape direct harassment or detention, but no one is free from the state’s far-reaching policies of control. No Chinese citizen enjoys the right to worship freely in accordance with international human rights protections for religion. No woman in China may make decisions about her family size, free from the restrictions of China’s invasive one-child-per-couple policy, which includes forced abortion and forced sterilization. No worker in China may organize into independent unions to defend labor rights. Uighurs, Tibetans, Mongols and other ethnic groups face additional curbs on how they preserve their cultures and express their identity.
The Congressional-Executive Commission on China, for which I serve as chairman, continues to monitor these ongoing rights violations. Recent commission hearings have addressed the toll of China’s censorship policies and conditions for political prisoners. Along with our annual report issued each October, the commission hearings serve as an important mechanism for documenting China’s actions.
Despite China’s brutal suppression of human rights, Chinese authorities claim to uphold the values of the UDHR and other human rights instruments. The government announced several months ago that it would issue a National Human Rights Action Plan for the coming years, following on the heels of a similar action plan issued in 2009. The earlier plan showed the Chinese government has improved its rhetorical strategy for asserting compliance with human rights standards but has improved little else. In the end, the plan has done nothing to better human rights conditions in China, which actually have regressed.
If we are to give real substance to human rights, we must hold China accountable to its obligations to abide by the values enshrined in the UDHR and to guarantee fundamental human rights. By keeping a constant spotlight on China’s behavior, ensuring the Chinese government faces consequences for its actions and supporting Chinese citizens in their rights defense efforts, we can give real meaning to International Human Rights Day and the values of freedom and democracy championed by Liu Xiaobo.
Rep. Christopher H. Smith, New Jersey Republican, is chairman of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China and a senior member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.