UN rights envoy slams China on human rights, says govt interfered with his work during visit

Dr Philip Alston, the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, has accused China of often ignoring the harm done to individuals as it pursues greater economic development.
Dr Philip Alston, the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, has accused China of often ignoring the harm done to individuals as it pursues greater economic development.PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (AFP/REUTERS) - A United Nations expert accused China on Tuesday (Aug 23) of staging a "pincer movement" to curb the influence of lawyers, activists and non-governmental organisations and limit their ability to protest against abuses.

While China has made significant progress towards its ambitious goal of eliminating poverty by 2020, it has often ignored the harm done to individuals as it pursues greater economic development, said Dr Philip Alston, the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. At the same time, he said, Beijing has cracked down on civil society, limiting the space for individuals and groups to influence public policy and air grievances.

He also said that the Chinese government had interfered with his work during a visit to China by blocking access to individuals whom he had hoped to meet. The envoy told reporters at the end of a nine-day visit to China that he had notified the government in advance of academics he wanted to meet on his visit, a routine practice for a UN special rapporteur. "None of those meetings were arranged, and the message I got from many of the people I contacted was that they had been advised that they should be on vacation at this time," said Dr Alston, an Australian who is a law professor at the New York University School of Law.

"The position that the United Nations has always followed and that I've followed in every other country that I've visited, and there are many, is that the rapporteur is entitled to meet with whomsoever he wants to meet with, that he's entitled to go wherever he wants to," Dr Alston said.

"We did not reach a common understanding of the role of a UN Special Rapporteur," he said, adding that he was followed by a security detail during the visit.

Since President Xi Jinping took power in 2012, the ruling Communist Party has arrested hundreds of activists and lawyers in a sweeping campaign that has closed avenues for the legal activism which emerged in recent years.

Recently introduced laws have combined with police action against protesters and lawyers in "a pincer movement designed to systematically narrow and control the space for citizens to express discontent over matters such as land rights, workers' rights and environmental threats", Dr Alston wrote in a statement.

In later remarks to reporters, he chided Beijing for asserting that governments should be able to choose which human rights to respect and which to ignore, depending on cultural practices.

"That approach is simply incompatible with the international human rights system," Dr Alston said.

"Given that China insists that it is part of the system... it would be very dangerous if we were to understand human rights with Chinese characteristics as authorising a fundamental departure from the full range of internationally agreed rights and standards."

Dr Alston's comments came at the end of a nine-day tour of China, where he was invited to study the government's poverty alleviation efforts.

He praised China's commitment to reducing extreme poverty - defined as an income of less than US$2.30 per day - but said it faces serious challenges, including inequality levels that are "deeply problematic".

Questions about the quality of Chinese data, however, made it difficult to assess the true nature of the challenges the country faces, Mr Alston said.

"There is a need to focus more on the importance of getting accurate data and on greater transparency," he said.