UN Body Urged to Focus on Human Rights in China, Saudi Arabia

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:07 PM EDT

London (CNSNews.com) - As the United Nations annual human rights gathering begins in Geneva Monday, a leading rights group has called for a specific focus on abuses in China and Saudi Arabia, both of whom it alleges enjoy kid-glove treatment because of their strategic importance.

No country should be seen as "untouchable" by the UN Commission on Human Rights, said Stephanie Farrior of Amnesty International.

The 54-nation Commission's 56th session runs from March 20 to April 28. As usual, the United States is due to sponsor a resolution critical of China's record, but its European allies are unlikely to add their support this time.

"The Commission should speak out on the human rights situation in China and other countries such as Saudi Arabia which have appalling human rights records," Farrior said.

She told CNSNews.com Monday that in some cases countries escaped criticism because of concerted lobbying by their governments, usually exploiting other countries' economic interests or strategic political considerations.

"What we are saying to governments is that they need to put economic and political considerations aside at the Commission, and put the focus back on human rights."

Farrior, who is director of AI's legal and international organizations program, said action by the Commission would make it clear that the same standards apply to powerful countries as to those applying to smaller ones which are "regularly censured."

She said the Commission has a procedure known as "1503," in which it takes up abuses confidentially with a particular country, asking for a response and seeking to improve the situation. If the target country does not rectify its behavior, the Commission may then bring the censure into the public domain.

According to Farrior, this procedure did not achieve its goal in the case of Saudi Arabia, and the Commission last year decided to drop the matter completely. Amnesty believed the decision had more to do with Saudi Arabia's strategic and economic influence than with any improvement.

"The Commission must break its wall of silence around Saudi Arabia and publicly scrutinize its appalling human rights record," Farrior said.

In a statement, AI focused attention on abuses in several countries. In Saudi Arabia, the organization cited unfair trials, intolerance of dissent, executions and torture, including amputations and flogging.

"Secrecy and fear permeate every aspect of the state structure in Saudi Arabia, and those who dare to criticize the system are severely punished ... yet, despite the gravity of the situation Saudi Arabia's record has never been publicly scrutinized by the UN."

Asked about the fact Muslim authorities could justify their use of some punishments on the basis of their interpretation of Islamic (shari'a) law, Farrior told CNSNews.com Saudi Arabia had ratified the Convention against Torture.

She said amputation "meets any definition of torture" while flogging could violate the prohibition on "cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment," and could in some cases be considered torture as well.

"We hold all governments to the same standards."

Human rights groups are pushing for a resolution critical of China during this year's session.

AI highlights the repression of peaceful dissent, draconian jail sentences for adherents of religious sects, the death penalty - "more people are executed each year in China than in the rest of the world put together" - and human rights violations in the Xinjiang and Tibet autonomous regions.

"A weak and divided response from the Commission to these human rights violations would be an insult to the victims, allowing the Chinese authorities to act with virtual impunity," AI said.

Farrior challenged the position of some countries that dialogue with offending nations such as China worked better than condemnation.

"It's our information that in the past year when this supposed dialogue has been going on the human rights situation has actually deteriorated in China.

"We are in favor of discussions with the government, but it seems the time is more than ripe for a resolution from the Commission expressing concerns ... the dialogue approach does not seem to be effective."

Among others promoting this line is Britain's Labor government, which has decided not to back an American resolution condemning China, leaning instead to the position held by France and other European Union countries adamantly opposed to a formal censure.

An official EU position is expected to be announced Monday, after a foreign ministers' meeting in Brussels.

Former Conservative administrations regularly co-sponsored a resolution condemning China, but Prime Minister Tony Blair's government maintains that dialogue works better.

"The decision makes a mockery of all the government's high-handed rhetoric about the 'ethical dimension' to their foreign policy," said Francis Maude, Conservative spokesperson on foreign affairs, at the weekend.

"Not content with telling the police to suppress pro-Tibetan protesters during the visit [to Britain last October] of President Jiang Zemin, now yet again the Labor government are refusing to condemn China's appalling record on human rights," Maude said.

Britain is apparently to push for condemnations this year of Burma, Sudan, Iraq and Sierra Leone.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow