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27-12-05, 22:35
The China Disconnect

Human rights is still cause for concern

By César Chelala

Among the challenges facing Chinese authorities is how to continue their country's fast rate of economic development in an atmosphere of respect for basic human rights according to international standards.

There are at least three areas where the human-rights situation in China needs special attention: trafficking of women and children, freedom of religion, and HIV/AIDS.

Every year, thousands of Vietnamese women and girls are trafficked to China. According to Vietnamese authorities, in the last 10 years more than 20,000 women and children have been trafficked to China for forced marriage or prostitution. Most women are made to believe that they will find good jobs and marriage prospects there. Once they reach China, however, many end up as beggars, doing forced labor or working as prostitutes. Young women with little formal education are particularly vulnerable.

Women trafficked to China are at high risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS, and are frequently abused by their own families when they get married to Chinese men. If they manage to return to Vietnam, both they and their children face widespread discrimination.

Through a series of policies and regulations, such as "Regulations on Religious Affairs," the Chinese government sharply limits freedom of religion. Although China's constitution states that all Chinese citizens enjoy freedom of religious belief, this article applies only to the five religions officially recognized in China. People who don't belong to one of these religions but organize outside state control become outlaws. In addition, the five religions officially recognized - Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism and Catholicism - are allowed to organize only under the strict control and supervision of Chinese authorities.

The situation is particularly serious in Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR), an oil-rich area that borders eight other countries in the northwest. Human Rights Watch has been particularly active in denouncing the situation in both regions. In the Tibet Autonomous Region, the Chinese government exerts strict control over the number of monasteries and the number of monks in them and has informants to keep an eye on monks' activities. Rebellious monks are subjected to detention and torture.

China's repressive policies are also evident in the case of the Muslim Uighur people in Xinjiang province. The Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking minority group of about eight million people who have fought relentlessly to protect their cultural identity despite the arrival of more than one million Chinese settlers over the last decade.

Another area of concern in the human-rights sphere has been the Chinese government control and harassment of AIDS activists. China is facing an HIV/AIDS epidemic that, if not controlled, could reach titanic proportions in the near future. It is estimated that by 2010, more than 10 million Chinese may become infected with HIV.

One of the epicenters of the epidemic is the province of Henan, where more than one million people have become infected with HIV following the selling of contaminated blood by provincial officials in the 1990s. None of the officials involved has been punished; some have even been promoted. Although Henan is the best-known case, 22 other provinces have what is known as "AIDS villages," where infection rates are as high as in sub-Saharan Africa.

The Chinese government response to the HIV threat has been uneven. Although the government has now acknowledged the seriousness of the situation, nongovernmental organizations are harassed and censored because the government cannot control them directly. In spite of that, there an emerging civil society is providing support to those infected.

Although the government has been more active in stopping the spread of HIV, its efforts are still hampered by poor baseline data. In addition, many young people lack adequate information on sexually transmitted diseases and on the modes of HIV transmission.

All these areas of concern have human rights at the center. It's time for Chinese authorities to step up. As Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China, stated to a U.S. congressional executive commission on China, "The future of democracy in China is interrelated to the promotion of human rights."
César Chelala (cchelala@aol.com) is an international public health consultant and the author of "AIDS: A Modern Epidemic."


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