Open Letter to Prime Minister Harper on visit to China and human rights
The Right Honourable Stephen Harper
Prime Minister of Canada
80 Wellington Street
Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0A2
by fax: 613 941 6900
2 February 2012
Dear Prime Minister,
We are writing to you, as members of the Canadian Coalition on Human Rights in China, in advance of your upcoming visit to China. We view your visit as a valuable opportunity to advance human rights as a key priority in Canada’s relationship with China and in particular to highlight a number of critical issues, including the plight of prisoners of conscience. We recognize that you face competing pressures regarding issues to prioritize, including trade considerations at a time of economic uncertainty. We trust that you will agree with us that human rights cannot be sold short to these interests. The rights of the many millions of people who face injustices at the hands of Chinese authorities on a daily basis matter too much to be given secondary attention. And ultimately, the relationship between Canada and China will be stronger if it is grounded in mutual respect for key international human rights principles.
A critical moment
Prime Minister, you travel to China at a critical time for increased and more forceful attention to human rights in the China/Canada relationship for three key reasons.
First, the past year has been a very difficult time for human rights protection in China. Coming in the wake of the global human rights scrutiny that accompanied the Beijing Olympics in 2008 or the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo in 2010, the international community’s interest in China’s human rights situation appears to have waned during 2011. Unfortunately, that diminished concern comes alongside deterioration in China’s human rights record.
Notably, throughout the year there has been a relentless crackdown against the country’s beleaguered human rights community. Human rights lawyers and other activists have been arrested, disappeared in custody, subjected to torture and ill-treatment, held for long periods without charge or trial, and convicted after blatantly unfair trials. The crackdown reflects Chinese government fears that reformers in China intended to launch a peaceful protest movement similar to the so-called “Arab Spring”. But while the world spoke out forcefully about the repression in the Middle East and North Africa, China’s moves against individuals pressing for democratic and human rights change went largely unchallenged by other states.
Against this backdrop, changes to China’s Criminal Procedure Law have been proposed which would allow detention for up to six months in undisclosed locations without charge or trial, essentially legalizing “disappearances.”
Second, your visit comes at a time when the balance of influence Canada has with China has shifted in important ways. Past Canadian governments have argued that Canada holds little sway with China and that forcefulness with respect to human rights concerns will be ignored and will only harm Canada’s commercial links with the country. However, that has changed considerably in recent years with the Chinese government’s notable interest in gaining a foothold in the Canadian natural resource sector, including oil, gas and mining companies and projects. That merits, in our view, a more confident and bold willingness to raise human rights concerns during your meetings with Chinese officials.
Third, we have noted the priority your government has given to the need for strengthened protection of the right to freedom of religion, reflected in the decision to establish an Office of Religious Freedom within the Department of Foreign Affairs. Many of the very serious human rights problems prevailing in China involve violations of this right, be it the persecution of Tibetans and Uyghurs, the campaign against practitioners of Falun Gong, and the ban on “underground” Christian churches. The government’s decision to establish an Office of Religious Freedom, with a global mandate, offers a timely opportunity to raise these concerns.
In particular, the unprecedented wave of self-immolations as a form of protest by sixteen Tibetans in recent months, and the demonstrations by Tibetans and escalating violence by Chinese security forces in response in Sichuan Province over the past week, are all cause for grave alarm.
In fact, the human rights situation in China continues to be worrying on very many fronts and has worsened recently in some respects. Attached to this letter we have provided a summary of some of the key concerns of members of our Coalition. We have also included a list of ten cases of individuals detained in China at this time who we consider to be unjustly imprisoned. A complete list of such cases would, unfortunately, be far too lengthy to compile. This list is a selection of emblematic cases which we feel represents that range of cases.
Prime Minister, we began this letter urging that you make human rights issues a priority focus of your upcoming visit to China. In that regard we specifically call on you to:
- Raise concerns about the worsening situation in Tibet, in line with previous statements made by the US and German governments.
- Press for reforms to be instituted to ensure that the right to religious freedom and all other universally-recognized human rights of Falun Gong practitioners, Uyghurs, Tibetans, Christians and other faith groups is fully respected.
- Raise concerns about the prisoner cases outlined in the list compiled by our Coalition. The document includes the case of Husseyin Celil, which we expect you will pursue at all possible opportunities. We urge you to press forcefully for Canadian consular access to Mr. Celil finally to be granted, and demand that due to the failure to provide him with a fair trial he should be promptly and unconditionally released.
- Make it clear that Canada is gravely concerned about the crackdown against human rights lawyers and activists.
- Urge that the proposed changes to the Criminal Procedure Law be withdrawn and that any further reforms be consistent with international human rights requirements.
We will follow the news of your visit with close interest and look forward to hearing of the efforts you take to press these and other human rights concerns while you are in China.
Amnesty International Canada
on behalf of the Canadian Coalition for Human Rights in China
Summary of specific concerns
The situation for Tibetans is very distressing and has been highlighted by the deepening despair that has led 16 Tibetans to set themselves on fire in protest of China’s policies. Some of these self-immolations are linked to the situation at Kirti Monastery and other monasteries, which are surrounded by heavily armed riot police, and widespread arrests of monks and nuns. Tibet has once again been closed to foreign visitors, until the end of March. Notably, the US and German governments have spoken out and expressed concern about the situation in Tibet.
The crackdown against Falun Gong, underway for more than a decade now, does not abate. Falun Gong practitioners constitute one of the largest groups of prisoners in the country. Last year the campaign against Falun Gong intensified, with sweeping detention, unfair trials leading to long sentences, enforced disappearances and deaths in detention following torture. The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture has noted that Falun Gong practitioners may account for 2/3 of victims of alleged torture in government custody.
Extensive human rights violations continue against the Uyghur population. It is 2½ years since the massive crackdown following violence and protests in 2009. Hundreds were arrested at the time. The clampdown against Uyghur dissent has deepened, with numerous Uyghur journalists or managers of Uyghur websites being sentenced to lengthy prison terms. We know that you personally have intervened with Chinese officials previously about the case of Canadian citizen Husseyin Celil, a Uyghur originally from Xinjiang. He has been imprisoned in China for over 5 years now, and is serving a life prison term after a blatantly unfair trial.
Reformers, Lawyers, Activists and Journalists:
Democratic reformers, human rights activists and independent journalists remain under siege. Liu Xiaobo is still in prison of course, more than one year now since his chair was so starkly empty at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo. In general, over the past year, numerous individuals have been imprisoned for no other reason than peacefully expressing their opinion about democratic and human rights reform in China. This includes a continuing crackdown against individuals who share their views over the internet, particularly bloggers. Lawyers who dare take up human rights cases pay a heavy price. The case of human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng demonstrates that very clearly. His three year prison sentence, which had been suspended, was reinstated last month. In general, unfair trials, arbitrary detention and the use of fabricated charges against journalists, lawyers and human rights defenders are all prevalent.
For years there has been a widely documented pattern of people from a whole variety of backgrounds disappearing in the Chinese prison system. Individuals disappear into so-called “black jails”, their detention unacknowledged, access to family and lawyers denied, and no legal process pursued. Many human rights activists have suffered this fate. The Chinese government is poised to legalize this practice through amendments to the country’s Criminal Procedure Law which would allow detainees to be held for up to six months in undisclosed locations in cases involving state security, terrorism or serious corruption. It is a troubling recipe for increased human rights violations.
Labour activists are clearly another group of concern, regularly harassed and restricted. Internal migrant workers in China remain one of the most vulnerable groups in the country. Health and safety legislation is routinely ignored and accidents covered up. Despite threat of arrest and other intimidation, many workers are taking action to raise these concerns.
Amnesty International Canada
416-363-9933, ext. 332