China Debuts First Human Rights Action Plan

( [email protected] ) Apr 15, 2009 04:59 AM EDT

China released its first ever human rights action plan Monday that contains actual benchmarks for improving the treatment of minorities and doing more to prevent abuse of detainees.

In the two-year plan, the communist government pledged to work on preventing illegal detention and torture, improve social security, health care and the living standard of minorities, women and the disabled.

The Chinese government, however, made it clear in the document that it will still give the economy greater priority than improving human rights.

“While respecting the universal principles of human rights, the Chinese government, in the light of the basic realities of China, gives priority to the protection of the people’s rights to subsistence and development,” reads the introduction to the document released by the official Xinhua News Agency.

While welcoming the plan, U.S.-based human rights group Amnesty International highlighted “major gaps” in the plan.

“The emphasis is on economic, social and cultural rights at the expense of civil and political rights,” said Roseann Rife, Amnesty’s Asia-Pacific deputy director. “But it should be clear that the Chinese people can’t enjoy one set of rights without the others.”

Amnesty points out that the plan fails to address the harassment, detention and imprisonment of human rights defenders and prisoners of conscience who are punished for exercising their rights to freedom of expression. Also, the plan does not address censorship of the internet and other media.

"For China’s human rights action plan to have real impact on the ground, authorities will have to take concrete steps that will meaningfully improve life for the people,” Rife said. “These include steps to address specific civil and political human rights violations such as those highlighted in concluding observations and recommendations of U.N. human rights monitoring mechanisms and treaty bodies."

In the plan, the Chinese government said it will inform detainees and their families of the rights of prisoners. It also calls for physical separation of detainees and interrogators and physical examinations before and after questioning to prevent abuse.

Detainees are also allowed to file a complaint with prison staff if they suffer abuse, the document said.

But Amnesty said these proposals are simply repeating existing laws and policies that have failed to adequately protect human rights.

The plan also calls on Chinese officials to allow greater democracy and to listen to the criticism of citizens and the media.

“The state will guarantee citizens’ rights to criticize, give advice to, complain of, and accuse state organs and civil servants,” it states.

But Chinese leaders have repeatedly stated that China will not adopt a Western-style democracy, and the document does not signal a change in policy.

The plan was issued ahead of the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square democracy protest on June 4, 1989.