Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said on August 16 that he asked China to allow an Australian program that provides training to promote human rights in practical ways to operate inside the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). Downer issued a statement following Australia’s sixth bilateral human rights dialogue with China, during which Australia raised 25 political prisoner cases.

Following is the full text of the release:

The Hon. Alexander Downer, MP
Minister for Foreign Affairs, Australia
Media Release
FA111 – 16 August 2002

Dialogue Helps Advance Human Rights in China

The sixth round of the bilateral Human Rights Dialogue with China took place in Canberra on 14 August.

As in previous rounds, there was an extensive discussion of human-rights issues of concern to the Australian Government and community, especially in the area of reform of the Chinese legal system, China’s treatment of ethnic and religious minorities and women’s and children’s rights. The treatment of Tibetans and Uighurs, the Falun Gong movement and members of unregistered Christian churches was specifically raised. I also personally raised issues of concern in separate meeting with the leader of the Chinese delegation, Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Gyangya.

The Chinese delegates to the Dialogue briefed Australia on legislative changes in China designed to improve the legal protections for civil and political freedoms and help China move towards eventual ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. These included recent efforts to improve the competence of lawyers and judges through a standardised, universal examination system; enactment of a new marriage law to provide women with more protection against domestic violence and further work towards amendments of the criminal evidence law that would make confessions extracted under torture disallowable as evidence in criminal prosecutions.

The Government also took the opportunity to raise with the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs the fate of a number of individuals in China whose cases have come to the community’s attention. For the first time ever, the Chinese provided a full and detailed account of all the cases raised by Australia. They noted that of the 25 cases raised, six of those involved had already been released from prison and one had her sentence remitted. The Government will continue to pursue information about these individuals and to press for their release as soon as possible.

It is clear some important differences remain between our two countries on certain issues, particularly in relation to the treatment of political dissidents and outlawed groups and cultural and religious freedom. The Government will continue to press China on these issues both in the Dialogue and at other appropriate opportunities. Nevertheless, the Government is encouraged by the growing quality and substance of the Dialogue in evidence this year and looks forward to further progress. I am also pleased that representatives of non-government organisations had an opportunity to speak directly with Chinese participants at a reception hosted by my department.

Dialogue participants also agreed on a new set of activities for 2002-03 under Australia’s Human Rights Technical Cooperation program. The program seeks to promote human rights in China in practical ways, for example through training in human-rights law for judges and law enforcement officers and training in other areas such as indigenous rights and the prevention of domestic violence. The program is an important practical demonstration of the Government’s commitment to human rights.

I have asked the Chinese Government to consider allowing projects under this program to be conducted in the Tibetan Autonomous Region.

On behalf of the Government, I would like to thank the participants in this year’s round of the Dialogue, including in particular Senator Marise Payne and Mr. Bernie Ripol MP from the Australian Parliament, and Professor Alice Tay, the President of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, whose important work in the field of human rights in China over many years is much appreciated by the Government.

In an August 16 radio interview Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said that it would be helpful if the Chinese Government and the Dalai Lama were brought together for discussion. Downer was talking to ABC radio following the sixth round of Australia-China bilateral human rights dialogue in Canberra on August 14, 2002.

Following is the full text of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) interview with Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Alexander Downer on its “Breakfast with Vivian Schenker” program on August 16, 2002.

Journalist: Now, the Dalai Lama has been in self exile for decades, why would the Chinese talk to him seriously now, do you know something we don’t?

Downer: No, I mean I have to say that efforts that have been made over the years to try to bring the Chinese Government and the Dalai Lama together for discussion, haven’t so far borne fruit. There were some efforts made a few years ago to do that, and some informal discussions, but it hasn’t happened and obviously if it was possible to build some sort of a relationship there and work through some of the differences that they have that’d be helpful.

Journalist: You’ve called for the release of Tibetan political detainees in prison in labor camps, what’s your best guess about the numbers of people we’re talking about?

Downer: That’s very hard to know and obviously there are varying estimates of that. I mean Amnesty International have their lists, but I wouldn’t want to guess the actual numbers, but clearly it is a cause of concern, one we find necessary to raise with the Chinese during these annual human rights dialogues.

Journalist: Do you know what sort of crimes they’ve committed?

Downer: Well of course the allegation made, particularly by western NGOs, including our own is that these people are essentially political prisoners, these are people who’ve been pursuing freedom of religion, freedom of expression, this hasn’t been well received by the Chinese Administration, that is the allegation. The Chinese deny that they’re political prisoners, that these are people who’ve committed more commonplace crimes and obviously that is a matter of debate between the Chinese Government and the NGOs.

Journalist: I mean it all seems a bit hopeless doesn’t it? The day after we express concern about members of the Falun Gong meditation sect being unfairly detained, a Chinese court in Hong Kong convicts and fines lots of their supporters.

Downer: Well, it’s obviously difficult. One shouldn’t have any illusions about how quickly one can achieve progress. I think though, it has to be said, over the last twenty or thirty years there has been a significant improvement in China’s human rights record. We wouldn’t have a human rights dialogue with China every year if we thought its record was a perfect record. But, nevertheless, there have been some improvements, and I think to be honest with you all you can do is just keep.

Journalist: Keep at it.

Downer: Keep beavering on. And I mean other countries have very much followed our lead and established human rights dialogues of one kind or another. The European Union has one, some of the European countries do, Canada and so on.

Journalist: I mean this was a meeting of officials rather than senior Ministers?

Downer: Well..

Journalist: And it was behind closed doors?

Downer: Well, most meetings are in a room. We’re not going to have them in a public stadium are we?

Journalist: No, but you take my point?

Downer: We have a mixture because, it’s not by the way just a meeting of officials in the sense that I made my way to Canberra as well to meet with the Vice Minister who led the Chinese delegation and he was a Vice Minister, but what we’ve tried to do is open it up as much as we reasonably can with any meeting with a foreign country. As I say, you can’t have a meeting in a public stadium. We have the meetings but we also organized a reception which we invited quite a number of people from NGOs, and they had the opportunity to meet with the Chinese at the reception in a more informal setting. Obviously they can raise any issues they like in those circumstances.

Journalist: Now I gather that we’ve agreed to help further development of China’s legal system and it’s infrastructure. In what ways?

Downer: Well we have had this program in place for three or four years I suppose, we have what’s called a human rights technical assistance program, and we’ve assisted for example with explaining to the Chinese how our legal system works. We’ve had contacts between our judges and Chinese judges, discussion with them about how the prosecutorial process works and the judicial system – those kinds of issues. Because when one talks about human rights I guess one’s mind naturally turns to political prisoners and people in those sorts of circumstances. But one of the big human rights issues is without any doubt the quality of the judiciary and the Chinese themselves will admit that they still have a way to go to upgrade their judiciary to standards that they themselves would regard as acceptable, and it is one of the ways that western countries, and Australia, is able to help the Chinese.

Journalist: Yes, I mean as you point out, it’s a long slow process and Amnesty International apparently documented an increase in human rights abuses in China, even though you say the situation is getting marginally better.

Downer: Well, it depends of course on sort of having this implicit discussion as we talk. It depends on how you define human rights. I mean, I define human rights in a broad comprehensive way. Economic rights have improved very substantially in China over the last thirty years, they’ve had enormous success in combating poverty. I mean it’s hard to think of another country in the world in the last thirty years that’s had as much success as China in combating poverty, but I mean obviously it’s not a liberal democratic system politically. It has weaknesses with its judiciary, there are concerns as we’ve been discussing in relation to the Falun Gong, problems in Tibet and so the list goes on.