On the eve of December 10, 2008, the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, over 300 Chinese citizens signed and posted online a document titled "Charter 08," calling for political reform and greater protection of human rights in China. (View a translation of Charter 08 in English here, or the original text in Chinese here.) Signers included leading intellectuals, lawyers, writers, farmers, and workers. Over the past week, many hundreds more people in China have signed, with some reports placing the number of signers in the thousands. Chinese abroad have signed the Charter as well.
Liu Xiaobo, one of the original signers of the Charter, and a prominent intellectual and dissident, has been detained, apparently for expression protected under international human rights standards that the Chinese government has recognized. Specifically, Mr. Liu's activities are protected under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which provides that "[e]veryone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression," and a similar provision in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which China signed in 1998 and has committed to ratify. Article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provide for the right to freedom of association. Articles 35 and 41 of China's Constitution, which provide the right of citizens to free speech, free association, and to criticize their government, also should protect Mr. Liu's activities. As of December 16, Mr. Liu's wife reportedly had not received an official notice of his detention, as required under Article 64 of China's Criminal Procedure Law. At the time of this writing, Mr. Liu's whereabouts remain unknown. In addition, at least 39 members of the group that initially signed Charter 08 have reported being questioned or harassed by authorities.
Charter 08 contains 19 recommendations, including, among other things, a call for guarantees of human rights and respect for human dignity, direct elections of legislative bodies and administration officials, an independent judiciary, separation of powers, and the guarantee of freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly. The Charter urges Chinese citizens to work together "for major changes in Chinese society and for the rapid establishment of a free, democratic, and constitutional country . . . to bring a brilliant new chapter to Chinese civilization."
The reported treatment of signers of Charter 08, including Mr. Liu, around the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, raises questions about recent statements made by Chinese officials with regard to China's human rights record. In November, China announced that it would release its first National Human Rights Action Plan. On December 5, China submitted its national report to the UN Human Rights Council under the Universal Periodic Review process. In a section titled "Speech, News Media Freedoms," the report highlights China's constitutional protections for freedom of speech and the freedom to criticize government officials, and notes that "criticizing the government" has become an important feature of Chinese life. President Hu, along with other top leaders, consistently have called for ensuring citizens' rights to "participation," "expression," and "oversight" as a check on government abuses.
- Press the Chinese government to release Liu Xiaobo immediately.
- Urge the Chinese government not to permit the intimidation or harassment of individuals who sign Charter 08, or who solicit new signatures.
- Call on the Chinese government to protect unconditionally signers' rights to free expression and free association.
Commission Resources on Charter 08, freedom of expression, and political imprisonment in China: