One World, Two Norms Of Human Rights

DECEMBER 10TH WAS International Human Rights Day, the anniversary of the UN’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights that enshrined the principle that human rights are indivisible, inalienable and universal. It was also the opening day of the two-day South-South Human Rights Forum in Beijing which brought together some 70 representatives of developing nations in Asia, Africa and Latin America on the premise that human rights are country-specific. The forum is another building block in China’s systematic attempts to construct a new international order with Chinese characteristics.

The first such forum, in 2017, issued the Beijing Declaration, which defined human rights primarily in economic terms, framing the rights to subsistence and development as the primary basic human rights. A Foreign Ministry spokesperson reiterated that definition yesterday, highlighting China’s achievements in providing food and shelter, the alleviation of poverty, and the provision of health, education and social security as evidence of human rights advancement in the country.

The Chinese government and people attach great importance to human rights cause, espouses a people-centered view of human rights, integrates the principle of universality of human rights with national conditions, and regards the rights to subsistence and development as its primary and basic human rights, opening a new path of human rights protection with Chinese characteristics based on its national conditions.

Such inversion of the notion that human rights are universal was called out by the European Union. In a wide-ranging statement marking International Human Rights Day, its delegation in China noted:

China has made remarkable progress in the social and economic situation of its citizens, including poverty alleviation, gender equality, improved access to health and education, and reduced maternal and infant mortality.

At the same time, basic human rights in the civic and political field, including rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration and also in the Constitution of China, are not being guaranteed. China is yet to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights it signed in 1998.

China was one of the countries that voted for the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, but that was during the civil war that led to the founding of the People’s Republic.

The EU expressed its particular concern over human rights in Xinjiang and Tibet.

Reports point to severe restrictions of the freedom of expression and association, and of the freedom of religion or belief in all of China; as well as continuous large-scale extra-judicial detentions. Destruction of mosques, temples and other religious sites take place systematically. Mass detentions of Uyghurs and other minorities in political re-education centres and intimidation of citizens by mass surveillance in Xinjiang still continue. Uyghurs abroad, including in the EU, are being harassed and in some instances returned to China involuntarily.

With the revelation of two troves of leaked documents on the Xinjiang detentions and the US House of Representatives passing legislation calling for targeted sanctions in response to the detention Uighurs, Beijing has been put uncharacteristically on the back foot. Shohrat Zakir, the deputy Party boss in Xinjiang and regional government chairman, said earlier this week that all those sent to what Beijing calls re-education camps had now ‘graduated’ from their ‘de-radicalization courses’.

How many of the reported up to 1 million detained Uighurs that covers is impossible to verify independently. The official line is that the figures are dynamic, with people coming and leaving. So no precise number can be provided.

Regardless, state media continues to portray this in the light of the new norms of country-specific and economically based human rights China wishes to establish.

Until only a few years ago, Xinjiang often fell victim to violent terrorist attacks which killed many innocent people. It was precisely the regional government’s decisive counter-terrorism measures including the establishment of vocational education and training centers that turned the situation around…Xinjiang’s preventive counter-terrorism and de-radicalization measures so far have proven effective in protecting the human rights of the 25 million people in the region.

The BBC’s account of Zakir’s statement, which asserted that those released from the centres had ‘realised stable employment’, implied that that could mean forced labour in factories. That would be a different and far darker interpretation of subsistence and development-based human rights.

Chinese officials are deeply aggrieved that Western governments and media portray the situation in Xinjiang as one of domestic human rights and not as tackling international terrorism.  They take this rejection of their line to be (yet one more) purposeful attack on China, and a willful disregard of the ‘truth and facts‘ released by Chinese authorities. Those same officials will readily point out that the United States fights Islamic terrorism by waging foreign wars — although that is an analogy that Beijing should be careful in pushing too far with regards to Xinjiang however differently it wants to frame its own norms of human rights.


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