Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Chinese perspectives

I know that I’m not the most objective person on the topic, but when you attend a lecture entitled “Chinese Observations on International Law” by the Chinese Ambassador to the Netherlands, who is also a member of the International Law Commission, you’d expect more than a lecture about the general nature of international law. But a session on the history and development of international law was what it felt like. I guess a one hour lecture doesn’t give you much time or room to expand... perhaps, especially when you’re speaking on behalf of a country that’s often accused of not living up to its international obligations.

China “attaches great importance to international law”. International law is the key to peace, stability and development, she says, and it is built on the respect and defence of every state’s sovereign independence and territorial integrity. And this very concept of sovereignty is one that she emphasised time and again. What is this notion of sovereignty? The Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, which forms the foundation of China’s foreign policy explains this clearly: mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other's internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence. It is based on equality, non-intervention, and the right to preserve each state’s political, economic and social systems. Remember this, because this seems to be the motivation and response of China in its relations with the rest of the world. No one should judge another, let alone interfere, because we do things our way.

Therefore, she added, it is worrying that there are trends toward unilateralism, rising role played by non-state actors and a fragmentation of international law to increasingly reflect national interests. More “intrusive” is the attempts of the international community to arbitrarily intervene based on the protection of human rights, especially in situations where the state has failed. These trends can be attributed to the fundamental premise founded on and as a result of the dominance of western liberalism in the international legal order.

There really wasn’t much about how China is living up to its international obligations. Maybe the fact that there are currently one thousand something Chinese peacekeepers is supposed to tell us something about China’s active role in international affairs. Of course, much importance was put on how China has become a key economic player in the world, and is party to hundreds of bi- and multilateral trade treaties. She was proud of the fact that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and International Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights are still in force in Hong Kong and Macau after the colonial regimes left. Silence on the increasing erosion of press freedom and lack of full democratic government in the two territories, and further silence on the prospect of China itself ratifying both human rights instruments.

Just as I was wondering what happened to the advances in the protection of human rights in the international legal order, a member of the audience asked a prominent question: what is more important—recognition by the international community, or the consensus of the people? I gasped, partly because finally someone touched upon a topic that all of us know, despite China’s impressive growth rates and entrance into the WTO, is continuously nagging at the back of our minds. She went on again about the importance of sovereignty and seemed to deliberately skirt around the issue. Political dynamite. Another person asked about Tibet, because throughout the lecture the speaker seemed fascinated with the way the European Union functions in terms of embracing differing national identities while at the same time respecting rights of individual peoples. China has constitutional guarantees to protect the rights of minorities, she assured us.

And time was up. Clap, clap, clap.

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