International Law and China’s Domestic Reform – A Good Mix or Self-Defeating?
Some leading Chinese scholars and prominent Chinese activists have been circulating a letter on Chinese social media calling for the National People’s Congress (China’s legislature) to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Here is an excerpt from the letter, which is carefully worded not to challenge the authority or the accomplishments of the current government.
2. Immediate ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights will honor the solemn pledge of the Chinese government, satisfy the fondest hopes of the Chinese people, and demonstrate China’s commitment to be a responsible world power.
When the United Nations passed the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1966, it called on all nations to see both treaties as part of a whole, signing and ratifying both together. As of November 1, 2010, 167 of the 193 United Nations member countries had formally joined the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In 2001, China ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which has been referred to as the “second generation of human rights.” But today, 15 years after our country signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1998, it has still not ratified this treaty, which is regarded as the “first generation of human rights.” China’s government has placed its emphasis on the gradual improvement of China’s existing legal system in advance of ratification, so that it can accommodate the demands and various responsibilities of the treaty. However, the gap between the signing of human rights treaties and their ratification must still be kept within the realm of reason, in order to promote further progress on civil rights and political rights, and in order to avoid unnecessary conjecture from the international community.
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.
As stirring as this letter is, I am doubtful that China’s adherence, or non-adherence to the ICCPR would make a big difference in advancing reform within China. China is already a party to key human rights treaties, such as the Convention Against Torture and the Convention Against Genocide, but it is hard to tell whether being party to those treaties has made a big policy difference within China. Moreover, the Chinese Constitution already guarantees many of the key rights in the ICCPR, but those rights are still rarely protected in China, and not all protected under Chinese law.
The larger question for international lawyers is whether human rights covenants like the ICCPR can or should be a vehicle for advancing a domestic political reform agenda. I haven’t thought about this question enough, but I am skeptical that such treaties can play a big role and I’ve seen no empirical data that suggests it does make a difference one way or the other. (If I’m missing something, please feel free to post below). Indeed, such treaties can often be counterproductive to domestic reformers who lose some credibility by being too closely associated with foreign and international powers.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for advancing human rights and political reform within China. I just have doubts as to whether international human rights law is a useful vehicle for advancing this agenda.