Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Playing games on Chinese; political will to defend international human rights law

Playing games on Chinese; political will to defend international human rights law -- Ann Kent

Friday, 4 April 2008
Playing Games on Chinese by Ann Kent

The current crisis in Tibet represents a turning point not only for China but for the international community as a whole.

For China, dissent in Tibet threatens the successful staging of the Olympic Games, which was planned to crown its triumphant re-entry into the international community. For the international community, and in particular Western states, China's suppression of that dissent represents a challenge to international norms and rules which, if not correctly handled now, may jeopardise that value system and critically distort China's sense of its place in the world. It will also set back change in China, where, at this very moment, some Chinese intellectuals are calling for an end to oppression in Tibet.

The Olympic Games is an occasion of mega-symbolism, signifying the brotherhood of man. Symbolism is very important to China. If the 2008 Games are allowed by the international community to pass as if nothing had happened in Tibet, the message to China will be that human rights are of no account before the towering realities of its economic and military power.

For over a decade now, the West has been featherbedding China on human rights. It has been stressing the similarity between China's economic modernisation policies and Western-style capitalism over the less agreeable reality of China's Leninist, authoritarian political system. When a human rights crisis occurs which highlights the latter, Western states in particular are thrown into confusion.

This featherbedding began in 1997 when, at the UN Human Rights Commission, China persuaded Western states to forgo the annual resolution critical of China's human rights for a series of bilateral human rights dialogues. These have been secretive, non-transparent, unaccountable and totally ineffective. From this success, China learned how easy it was to divide and rule the international community.

The initial facts of the Tibetan human rights crisis are that on March 10, the 49th anniversary of Chinese suppression in 1959, Tibetan monks, responding to floods of Han Chinese settlers and the submergence of their culture, began five days of non-violent demonstrations in Lhasa which were later suppressed by Chinese forces; the unrest spread to the rest of the population and ordinary Tibetans attacked Han Chinese shops and citizens; and in turn Chinese forces fired on Tibetans.

Subsequent developments have been deliberately obscured. China has not, as the international community has urged, sought to mediate these differences and seek discussions with the Dalai Lama and senior Tibetan figures. On the contrary, it has ordered foreign journalists out of Tibet and neighbouring Chinese provinces like Sichuan, Qinghai and Gansu where large numbers of Tibetans have settled, and sent in large cohorts of Han Chinese troops. Simultaneously, it has allowed only a few controlled visits by foreign diplomats and journalists to the whole western region of China. With such a media blackout, initial claims by Chinese officials that only 18 civilians and a policeman had died in Lhasa and a total of 382 people had been wounded, and later upgrades of figures, could not be verified. China initially resorted to bizarre official rhetoric not heard since the end of the Cultural Revolution and later blocking out YouTube and setting up a website, www.anti-cnn.com, which accuses the Western media of misreporting developments in Tibet. It has also garnered expressions of support for its actions from such questionable bastions of democracy and human rights as Singapore.

The question is: would such developments be tolerated anywhere else in the world without immediate recourse to the UN? Clearly, the hands of the UN Security Council are tied by China's status as one of its five permanent members and by its veto power.

By contrast, responses of individual Western states reflect confusion. While the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, has not ruled out the possibility of boycotting the opening ceremony, US President George Bush has. In between, on 31 March, British Foreign Office Minister Lord Malloch-Brown pointed out in a BBC interview that, over the last 30 years, China has become better integrated into the international system and more compliant with international law. He concluded that the loss of face resulting from an Olympics boycott might well set back China's international socialisation and warned that any overt action might force China back into a defensive and antagonistic foreign policy posture reminiscent of the 1960s.

Given this apparent impasse, what leverage does the international community possess? More than it realises. What matters to China in its international relations is face, status, sovereignty and international reputation. The exception in its generally impressive record of international compliance has been human rights, because human rights are seen to impact on China's sovereignty and internal security. In a crisis, calculations of sovereignty and face will prevail.

For this reason, where human rights are concerned, the international use of force or imposition of sanctions on China have seldom worked. For instance, the most effective pressures imposed by foreign states on China following its suppression of the 1989 Democracy Movement were not sanctions but those that combined modified public shaming with policies integrating China back into the international community. That is why even the Dalai Lama does not recommend the international boycott of the 2008 Olympic Games.

However, while Lord Malloch-Brown may have been correct to advise against humiliating China, he has underestimated the extent of China's successful international integration. Today, the international community is as necessary to China as China is to that community. China is still an authoritarian state which may return on occasions to violent rhetoric, but it is now much more inextricably integrated into the international system than he credits. However much criticism it receives on Tibet, it will not revert to an isolationist and chauvinistic foreign policy. Furthermore, it has signed and ratified most of the major international human rights instruments, even though it has not yet ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. And one of the conditions of its hosting of the Games was its promise to improve its human rights. So the international community can and should take off its kid gloves.

The keys to an effective international response to China's suppression of Tibetan human rights are thus unity, consistency and transparency in message and action, and the political will to defend international human rights law, all of which have been missing since 1997. Individual states and foreign media attending the Olympics must feel free to make statements critical of China's treatment of Tibet, and other human rights violations, while at the same time praising China for other positive achievements. The prior muzzling of sportsmen and women through contracts signed before the Games, especially by British contestants, is a particularly shameful episode in Olympic Games annals which should be abandoned.

Just as those attending the Games should be allowed to speak out, so states in the UN Human Rights Council should take China to task. By offering to host the Games, China, with its poor human right record, has knowingly stuck its neck out. It may be able to stage-manage its own events, but it should not be allowed to stage-manage the world. If we are not prepared to defend human rights in international forums, particularly the highly symbolic Olympic Games, then we have muzzled ourselves forever.

Ann Kent is a Visiting Fellow in the ANU College of Law and author of Beyond Compliance: China, International Organizations and Global Security (Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 2007).


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