Kenneth Roth
Executive Director, Human Rights Watch

China and Human Rights

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While there has been evolution in China, tremendous growth is needed.

Kenneth Roth

Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch since 1993, has investigated human rights abuses around the globe, with special expertise on issues of justice and accountability for atrocities committed in the quest for peace; military conduct in war under the requirements of international humanitarian law; counterterrorism policy including resort to torture and arbitrary detention; the human rights policies of the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations; and the human rights responsibilities of multinational businesses. Mr. Roth has published more than 100 articles and chapters on a range of human rights topics. Before joining HRW as deputy director in 1987, Mr. Roth was a federal prosecutor for both the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York and the Iran-Contra investigation in Washington. He is a graduate of Yale Law School and Brown University.

China represents an enormous human rights challenge in part through its domestic practices. Because it still is doing everything it can to prevent the emergence of any kind of organized political opposition. So while there’s been tremendous evolution in China, and tremendous growth in what you might call “personal freedom”, today people do have the right to choose where they work, where they live, where they send their kids to school. There’s much greater personal freedom; but when it comes to political freedom, there still is very little. You can speak out in certain circumstances; but anything you do that begins to look like organized opposition is likely to face a government reaction. So expanding the scope of civil society in China is an enormous challenge. And because China is so big, and thus so immune to some of the traditional forms of pressure, it’s a particular challenge. But the other challenge that China presents is in its foreign policy, because China today is looking foremost for natural resources to fuel its economic growth. And it . . . because it is so sensitive about people interfering in its domestic affairs, it has adopted an ideology in its dealings with other countries of non-interference. So it will enter into contracts to purchase oil, or to explore for minerals with so called “no strings attached”. It will make these purchases or enter into contracts without regard to the conduct of its partner government. And the result of that is it tends to (01:03:04) undermine pressure being exerted by the World Bank, or the IMF, or western governments to try to improve the practices of some of these governments – whether it’s in the area of corruption, or in the area of repression. And so you take a country like Sudan where China has been the principle purchaser of Sudanese oil. And while western governments have slowly pulled out of Sudan because they don’t want to be underwriting the slaughter in Darfur, China has gone in and bought away, and indeed for a long time was fighting off pressure to . . . being put on Khartoum to stop the murder in Darfur. Now that has slowly begun to change, and this is one place where I am guardedly optimistic. Because China seems increasingly not to want to be seen as the supporter of thugs and murderers around the world. It wants to be seen, it appears, as a responsible global citizen. And it increasingly was getting a black eye. Its reputation is getting tarnished because of its behavior in places like Sudan, or Burma, or Zimbabwe, or Angola. And particularly with the Olympics approaching – a particularly sensitive moment for China in public relations terms – we’ve begun to see some modest changes – foremost in Darfur where the Chinese government has begun to play a useful role in convincing Khartoum to consent to the deployment of a hybrid, United Nations, African Union Peacekeeping Force in Darfur. A year ago, say in . . . in 2006, China was resisting that kind of pressure. But beginning in roughly December 2006 and on throughout 2007, China has been playing a modest but useful role in convincing Khartoum to allow this peacekeeping force to go forward. And I think the reason for that is simply that China didn’t like the tarnishing of its reputation because of its tacit support for this mass murder. And indeed there’s no reason for China to be indifferent to mass murder. You don’t expect China to be actively supporting civil society or the rule of law around the world when these are not rights that are respected at home. But at least since Tiananmen Square, China is not in the business of committing mass murder. And so it can quite safely oppose mass murder around the world without . . . for fear of . . . of this, you know, boomeranging back and somehow impinging on its own latitude at home. And so this is an area where I think we can get China operating on a more constructive level. But any dealing with China is . . . is slow, long term and challenging.

Recorded on: 8/14/07