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Advancing Human Rights in China: An Interview
Following is an interview conducted by the Beijing-based bimonthly Human Rights with Ms Kerstin Leitner, Resident Co-ordinator of the United Nations System's Operational Activities for Development, and Resident Representative of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Q: What, in your opinion, is today's world human rights situation and its prospects?

A: In 1948, the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was truly a visionary document because it anticipated that in the wake of World War II countries would become closer, that they would become more interdependent, that they would have more economic, social and cultural exchanges and that it was necessary to make human rights a constituent part of the international community. It is on the basis of these human rights principles that we can work for peace and development. Today, 50-odd years later, as we are experiencing globalization, human rights principles have become the value system in the context of globalization. We value each and every one of us, irrespective of where we are, whether we are tall or small, whether we are poor or rich, whether we are women or men, whether we are in a poor country or in a rich country. We are all equal. We all have the right to be treated with the same dignity, we all have the right to not go hungry, to have a chance to life. This is what human rights are about. And I think generally the world is only slowly realizing this. First we created the value system, now we also have to use it, because we cannot just trade with each other, we cannot just visit each other as tourists. We truly have to be able to live with each other on the basis of mutual respect. The human rights instruments such as the Universal Declaration, the Covenants, and some of the subsidiary conventions have been formulated, signed and ratified by many countries. Since 1948, the international community has built up an impressive body of human rights protection instruments.

Q: You have lived in China for more than five years. What do you think of the present human rights situation in China? Have changes taken place over the past five years?

A: I think the ratification of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights is truly a milestone event in China's efforts to embrace the international human rights standards and principles. It is obvious that the whole debate that was conducted in preparation for ratification made a lot of people in the Party, in the National People's Congress and in academic institutions, think much more thoroughly about what it means in practice. So when the Covenant was ratified, I think many more people were convinced that this was a useful tool for pursuing China's reform and development agenda. Since then I have seen many more references to human rights, much more openness than before to discuss human rights issues. Therefore, March 2001 is maybe not a turning point, but certainly a milestone. It was almost turning a light switch. Before the ratification, everyone felt nervous, but after the ratification, people felt comfortable dealing with human rights issues. There are many questions which arise when applying human rights to economic, social, cultural, and eventually to civil and political rights. It is not trivial, and it is not always easy. To find the right response to arising issues, a lot of interaction, a lot of debate, is necessary to ensure that the protection of the rights of individual citizens is realized in a concrete way in the country, and a strong legal system has to be in place.

Q: Would you please tell us what your office has done, is doing and will do in co-operation with China in the field of human rights?

A: First and foremost, I would like to say that on human rights issues, we do not work alone. We work in partnership with our colleagues from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and they co-ordinate with other UN organizations. The UN system has developed a rights based approach to development and we shall be pursuing this approach in China, too. As the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has no local representation, they work out of Geneva, they do not necessarily always know all that is happening in China. Our role therefore is to make sure that the High Commissioner and his staff are comprehensively briefed on what is going on in China. We need to avoid that for lack of information a situation is misjudged, leading to misunderstandings. We all are, not only in China, on a steep learning curve, when it comes to human rights application. In addition, UNDP has a programme in support of China's legal system reform, which complements the technical assistance co-operation that the High Commissioner has worked on with Chinese institutions. The High Commissioner works on specific issues that have been agreed between the Chinese authorities and them, such as the punishment of minor crimes, human rights education, human rights and police. UNDP focuses on management issues. In that context we focus our attention on improving access to justice by the poor and the protection of persons with disabilities, to give just two examples.

(China Daily June 12, 2003)

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