If President Obama can raise just one human rights issue at the summit this week with Chinese President Hu Jintao, he should speak for China’s disappeared.
On Dec. 19, 2009, 20 Uighurs - a Muslim ethnic minority in China who have long suffered from state discrimination and other abuses - were forced onto a Chinese government plane in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, flown back to China and effectively disappeared into official custody. Since then, the only whisper of the fate of the deported Uighurs - who included two infants - was an unconfirmed report in mid-January 2010 that some of them had been sentenced by a Xinjiang court to verdicts that included the death penalty.
The group - which had sought refugee status in Cambodia - had been issued “persons of concern” letters by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees; under international law, those documents should have provided them protection from deportation. The Chinese government insisted that the 20 Uighurs were “criminals” to whom those protections did not apply. The Cambodian government ignored the high likelihood that the Uighurs would face torture, disappearance and/or arbitrary detention upon return to China, and under pressure from Beijing, Cambodia forced the Uighurs to return. Shortly after their plane left, Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping touched down for a high-profile state visit to Cambodia, suggesting that Phnom Penh prioritized Beijing’s demands over Cambodia’s obligations under international law.
In a report released Jan. 11 on the failures of China’s first human rights “action plan,” Human Rights Watch documented an alarming variety of enforced disappearances in China. Ongoing efforts to locate dozens of Uighur men and boys disappeared by security forces in Urumqi in the wake of the July 2009 protests there have yielded virtually no information as to their status or well-being.
Enforced disappearances are a favorite tool for purging China’s petitioners - rural residents seeking legal redress for abuses of power at the local level. Every year in Beijing alone, thousands of petitioners are abducted, detained and subjected to appalling abuses in a network of secret, illegal detention facilities known as “black jails.” Despite a recent spate of Chinese state media reports of these abuses, the government has failed to publicly decry such violations or take decisive actions to halt them or punish the perpetrators.
China’s high-profile dissidents are also subjected to enforced disappearances. Gao Zhisheng, a lawyer who took on some of China’s most controversial causes, including defending miners and religious minorities like the Falun Gong and underground Christians, was the victim of an enforced disappearance in February 2009. Mr. Gao re-emerged in his Beijing apartment in early April 2010 but vanished again days later, apparently back into official custody. Mr. Gao’s location, health and circumstances remain unknown.
Rights-respecting governments have made regular inquiries about all of these kinds of cases, only to be told not to “interfere in internal affairs.” The deportation of the Uighurs and the recent events in Oslo serve as a stark reminder of the Chinese government’s greater willingness to try to use its rising economic power and growing diplomatic heft to exempt itself frominternational human rights standards, no matter how shrill and crude those tactics appear.
Just six days after the Uighurs’ deportation, a Beijing court sentenced Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo to an 11-year prison term on spurious “subversion” charges for his role in drafting the online petition Charter ‘08. That document calls for peaceful political change and rights embodied in China’s constitution. As expectations grew that Mr. Liu would win the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, the Chinese government dispatched no less than its deputy foreign minister to Oslo to threaten that honoring Mr. Liu would harm bilateral China-Norway relations. After his selection was announced, the Chinese government vociferously denounced the award. Early last month, it issued explicit warnings to foreign governments not to attend the Dec. 10 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo on the basis that Mr. Liu was a “criminal.” While 45 nations ignored that pressure, a total of 19 countries - including China’s close allies Pakistan, Russia and Cuba - chose to stay away.
Mr. Obama will meet with the leader of an assertive government ever more willing to use its rising influence to obtain international silence for its abuse of human rights. The onus is on Mr. Obama to express the same support for universal human rights and freedoms as he did on Dec. 10, when he praised Mr. Liu’s Nobel Prize victory and urged his immediate release.
Mr. Obama must use the occasion of his summit with the Chinese president to reiterate U.S. government expectations that a rising China must respect universal rights and freedoms rather than undermine them. Failure to do so will only ensure that more innocent Chinese citizens will join those lost 20 Uighurs in the ranks of China’s disappeared.
Phelim Kine is an Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch.