Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, released a statement today in Beijing saying that while China’s achievements in alleviating extreme poverty in recent years have been “extraordinary,” that progress has been accompanied by “very high levels of inequality,” a “very weak . . . legislative framework for recognizing economic and social rights,” and “a carefully designed law and order Pincer Movement . . . to significantly reduce the options for seeking redress or letting off steam through any legal or administrative mechanisms.”
Alston’s statement came at the end of his nine-day fact-finding mission to China (August 15-23), his first official visit to the country to assess the effectiveness of efforts by the Chinese government to eradicate poverty and “how such efforts are anchored in its international human rights obligations.”
Alston stresses that the elimination of extreme poverty cannot be achieved if states treat economic and social rights as mere aspirational or development goals rather than as human rights. He also advocates that a robust framework for insuring the respect and protection of those rights must include three key components: recognition of those rights in domestic law, institutional support for their promotion, and accountability mechanisms for their implementation. Alston identifies major weaknesses in the Chinese system in all three aspects, particularly in government accountability, citing political interference in the courts—by the Party’s Political and Legal Affairs Committees, Zhengfawei—as a major obstacle to the independence of the judiciary, and leaving “little room for optimism.”
In addition to structural and systemic weaknesses, Alston describes what he sees as a “Pincer Movement” in recent developments that combines law and police power to suppress civil society participation and reduce the means for citizens to hold officials accountable for rights violations. These developments include the crackdowns on human rights lawyers and labor lawyers which, in Alston’s view, have “made it difficult for lawyers to be other than governmental facilitators.” In addition, the Law on the Management of Foreign Non-Governmental Organizations’ Activities within Mainland China will, when it comes into force in 2017, subject domestic and foreign NGOs to severe restrictions as well as criminal sanctions in the name of “national interests” or “society’s interests”—phrases that Alston deems “problematically open-ended and discretionary.”
The suppression of civil social participation “will generate increasing pressure for mass protests, which are generally met with repressive measures,” Alston warns. “The challenge therefore is to develop mechanisms which enable genuine accountability to be sought by private citizens alleging violations of their rights.”
In his statement, Alston noted substantive impediments to an accurate assessment about extreme poverty caused by the unreliability and unavailability of certain official data. Logistics also presented problems for his mission. In interviews with the media, Alston voiced concerns about official restrictions on his ability to meet with private individuals. He told Reuters that he had notified the government in advance of academics he wanted to meet, but that “[n]one of these 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.”
Such official restrictions violate the terms of reference set out in UN protocols for country visits by special rapporteurs on fact-finding missions. In particular, certain guarantees and facilities should be provided by host governments, including “freedom of inquiry, in particular as regards . . . contacts with representatives of non-governmental organizations, other private institutions and the media [and] confidential and unsupervised contact with witnesses and other private persons, including persons deprived of their liberty, considered necessary to fulfil the mandate of the special rapporteur.”
The initial request for a fact-finding visit was made by a previous mandate holder back in 2005. The Chinese government took 11 years to agree to the visit. It is one of only three visits by UN experts allowed by China since 2010. There are currently 12 outstanding requests for visits by other UN experts.
Alston is scheduled to submit his final report to the UN in June 2017.