Obama Urged to Put Human Rights at Center of Upcoming G20 Meeting in China

Washington, D.C.As President Obama prepares to travel to China next month for his final G20 summit, Human Rights First urges him to prioritize human rights and speak out against growing civil society crackdowns in China and other G20 member nations. Specifically, President Obama should use the trip to call for an end to laws restricting funding and cooperation from foreign NGOs, to decry sweeping national security laws used to target and silence civil society activists, and to call for the release of detained human rights activists who are unjustifiably imprisoned. The president should also meet with civil society leaders to better understand the growing hurdles they face.

“Failure to stand up for universal values at the G20 summit this year will undermine the capacity of the United States to promote them everywhere,” Human Rights First President and CEO Elisa Massmino warned in a letter to President Obama. “You have made a strong case during your presidency that human rights is an important component of national security. … The G20 summit is an opportunity to make clear – to China and to all the G20 nations – that the U.S. government expects them to do the same, in the mutual interest of continuing partnership.”

The G20 meeting is slated to take place from September 4-5 in Hangzhou, China, and is the first-ever summit hosted in China. Human Rights First notes the gathering offers a unique opportunity for President Obama to weigh in on pressing human rights concerns both within China and throughout the G20.

The State Department’s 2015 report on human rights in China noted, “Repression and coercion markedly increased during the year against organizations and individuals involved in civil and political rights advocacy and public interest and ethnic minority issues.” China’s President Xi Jinping has in the last two years jailed activists and “disappeared” lawyers who dare to advocate for human rights.  Activists have been denied access to legal counsel or visits by family members, a violation of China’s own laws and international commitments. Those eventually released are often coerced into making “confessions” that blame foreign forces for using them to try to undermine the Chinese government.

Unfortunately, this development is consistent with a trend towards clamping down on civil society organizations around the world, including in other G20 countries such as Russia and Turkey. China and more than one hundred other states—including many within the G20—have recently passed legislative restrictions on foreign funding and foreign cooperation with NGOs.

In April, China passed a new Foreign NGO Management Law, scheduled to go into effect on January 1, 2017, that forbids foreign funding of all nongovernment organizations and gives security forces authority over them. Foreign NGOs may not engage in any activities that damage “China’s national interests” or “ethnic unity,” and individuals can be held criminally responsible for funding a foreign NGO engaged in activities that “split the country or damage national unity or subvert the state.” NGOs working to advance LGBT rights are among those complaining of harassment and discrimination. Indeed, the new law is expected to restrict the work of more than seven thousand independent rights and humanitarian organizations operating in China.

In addition, last year, China passed a sweeping new national security law bolstering the power domestic and military security forces and extending their reach to all areas of Chinese society, from culture to education to cyberspace. Human rights advocates in China worry the laws will be used to target civil society activists, who will have little legal protection.

Next month’s summit offers President Obama the opportunity to solidify his legacy of standing with civil society and against repressive policies designed to silence dissent. In September 2013, President Obama launched Stand with Civil Society, “a global call to action to support, defend, and sustain civil society amid a rising tide of restrictions on its operations globally.” Later, the president’s September 23, 2014 Presidential Memorandum instructed U.S. agencies to engage with civil society, noting “The participation of civil society is fundamental to democratic governance. Through civil society, citizens come together to hold their leaders accountable and address challenges that governments cannot tackle alone.”

“When you arrive in Hongzhou in September, we hope you will make clear to President Xi that the U.S. government supports independent civil society organizations focused on advancing human rights,” wrote Massimino, who urged the president to speak out against the anti-NGO law and other overly-restrictive laws in China that threaten civil society and rights activists, and to coordinate his expression of opposition to these increasingly repressive practices with other G20 countries that share these concerns.


Published on August 23, 2016


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