Prof. Philip Alston, Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Issues Statement on China

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On Tuesday, August 23, 2016, Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights and Faculty Director of the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (CHRGJ), said that China has made huge progress in poverty alleviation, but that it also needs to put in place meaningful accountability mechanisms that citizens can use when their rights are violated in the context of development-related activities.

Alston’s statement came at the conclusion of a nine-day official visit to China with CHRGJ researchers Christiaan van Veen, senior advisor to the mandate, and Silvia de Rosa, consultant.

“China’s achievements in alleviating extreme poverty in recent years, and in meeting highly ambitious targets for improving social well-being, have been extraordinary,” Alston said. He noted that the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party is confronted with enormous challenges in the form of slower growth rates, dramatic inequality, deep-rooted environmental degradation, and a struggle to define the rule of law. But he added that its determination to build a ‘moderately prosperous society’ free of extreme poverty cannot be doubted. “This political will is impressive and all too uncommon in today’s world,” Alston said at the end of his official visit to the country.

President Xi Jinping has promised to eliminate extreme poverty by 2020, so that no-one shall be left behind. In practice, this means lifting 55.75 million rural people out of extreme poverty defined by reference to an income-based standard of $2.30 per day or 2,800 yuan per year.

However, an important part of the human rights dimension of the challenge has so far been neglected according to Alston.

“China has ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and has consistently emphasized its commitment to guaranteeing those rights. But for these rights to be treated like human rights rather than broad development goals three essential steps need to be taken: first, the recognition of the rights in legislative or other form, second, the creation of institutions to promote their realization, and third the provision of accountability mechanisms to ensure redress for violations,” Alston noted.

Most of the rights are not specifically recognized in legislation, and no institutions exist that promote these rights as human rights. But the biggest challenge relates to mechanisms for redress and accountability, which are an indisensable component of a human rights approach.

The Special Rapporteur noted that there have been some promising developments in recent years, including the reform of the Administrative Litigation Law and changes to the court system. Alston warned that other developments look like a Pincer Movement designed to systematically narrow and control the space for citizens to express discontent over matters such as land rights, workers’ rights and environmental threats.

“The crackdown on human rights lawyers that began in July 2015 and gathered pace with recent convictions, the persistent ineffectiveness of the system for petitioning officials, punitive responses to protests, new laws designed to limit the roles played by NGOs and to limit dramatically the role of foreign foundations, all seem to be heading in the direction of shrinking the space available to citizens to influence policy-making through public debate or to contest alleged violations of their rights.”

“China has much to be proud of in the field of poverty alleviation. However, if it is to effectively ensure the implementation of its economic and social rights obligations, it needs to adopt more robust mechanisms for citizen involvement and for governmental accountability.”

During his official visit to China, the Special Rapporteur met and engaged with the central government and with local governments, non-governmental organizations, representatives of international organizations, and academic experts in Beijing and in Yunnan province. Alston will present a comprehensive report with his full findings and recommendations to the Human Rights Council in June 2017.

Read the Special Rapporteur’s full end-of-mission statement here.

Read the full OHCHR press release in English and Mandarin.