Should China Unsign the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights?

With China’s rise to global power and its increasingly evident ambition to reform the current liberal international order, its human rights records have faced growing international scrutiny. Since the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, Beijing has continued to suppress civil and political rights. In recent years, the CCP’s continued crackdown on the #MeToo movement and the revelation of the internment camps for the Uyghur Muslim population in Xinjiang have triggered international outcry and have raised questions on China’s commitment to international human rights law.

In 1998, China signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a legally binding international treaty. Professor Margaret Lewis, an expert in Chinese law with special focus on criminal justice and human rights, argues that China should unsign the ICCPR. More specifically, the international community shall ask China to unsign from this legally binding treaty, although it cannot compel China to do so. 

In the international treaty-making process, states first sign the final, adopted version of the treaty. This creates an obligation that signatory states make good-faith commitments to ratify the treaty, which means to validate the treaty’s legal obligations within the states’ domestic legal jurisdictions. Thus, there exists an interim period between signing and ratification during which signatory states are obliged to adhere to essential elements of the treaty and to not undermine its purpose. In fact, this obligation was codified in the Interim Obligation Article of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, a treaty law to which China is a party. 

Beijing has violated the interim obligation through its suppression of the right to religion, media freedom, academic freedom, freedom of association and assembly, and many other important civil and political rights that constitute the core components of the ICCPR. To date, Beijing has not ratified the agreement nor has it specified a timeline for ratification. By unsigning from this treaty, China would be proactively deciding to refrain from officially becoming a party to the treaty and would no longer be bound to the treaty’s legal obligations.

Professor Lewis concedes that she does not expect China to unsign. Beijing will probably frame the international community’s demand as an attempt to discredit the Party-state. So why should other countries, as a matter of politics and policy, still ask China to unsign?

First, it is worth noting that Professor Lewis’s argument is limited to the ICCPR, because civil and political rights have been most under siege in China. The Party-state has consistently promoted its particular discourse on human rights which prioritizes the “right to development” or social and economic rights over other categories of rights. This notion of a hierarchy of human rights blatantly contradicts international consensus which considers social, cultural, and economic rights, and political and civil rights as intertwined, not discrete. Yet, through its involvement in international organizations, Beijing has gradually and subtly infused its rhetoric into the global human rights framework. Demanding China to unsign from the ICCPR is an opportunity for the international community to reaffirm that core universal rights are not negotiable. As China has become increasingly prominent in the international legal realm, it is critical that countries speak out against violations of international standards, legal obligations, and universal human rights.

In the context of the broader discourse on relations with China, Professor Lewis acknowledges that the strategy of engagement with China should continue. However, engagement should not translate into turning a blind eye towards Beijing’s human rights violations. Engagement can and should come hand in hand with rightful criticisms of wrongdoings. 

Professor Lewis’s presentation is on her forthcoming publication titled “Why China Should Unsign the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights”. If you want to learn more about her research, please click here.

Blog Author