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China's draft counterterrorism law a recipe for abuses

This statement was originally published on hrw.org on 21 January 2015.

The Chinese government should radically revise its proposed legislation on counterterrorism to make it consistent with international law and the protection of human rights, Human Rights Watch said today. The draft law was made public for consultation in November 2014 and is expected to be adopted in 2015 after minimal revisions.

As currently drafted, the law would legitimate ongoing human rights violations and facilitate future abuses, especially in an environment lacking basic legal protections for criminal suspects and a history of gross human rights abuses committed in the name of counterterrorism. Such violations are evident across the country and particularly in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, the region that has been most affected by acts of terrorism and political violence in recent years.

"China has seen appalling attacks on people, and the government has a duty to respond and protect the population," said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. "But in its present form this law is little more than a license to commit human rights abuses. The draft needs to be completely overhauled and brought in line with international legal standards."

The Chinese government claims that its proposed counterterrorism legislation responds to and conforms with United Nations Security Council resolutions urging countries to take measures to combat and strengthen their cooperation against terrorism. Yet such resolutions have also stressed that countries need to "ensure that any measure taken to combat terrorism comply with all their obligations under international law ... in particular international human rights, refugee, and humanitarian law" (Security Council Resolution 1456 (2003)) - something that China's proposed legislation clearly does not do.

The draft counterterrorism law states that "counterterrorism work shall be conducted in accordance with the law" and that "human rights shall be respected and guaranteed" (art. 6). But the 106-article draft makes clear the government's intent to establish a counterterrorism structure with enormous discretionary powers, define terrorism and terrorist activities so broadly as to easily include peaceful dissent or criticism of the government or the Communist Party's ethnic and religious policies, and set up a total digital surveillance architecture subject to no legal or legislative control. (See: China's Draft Counterterrorism Law: Key Areas of Concern)

In recent years China has experienced a number of deadly and apparently politically motivated attacks directed against the general population. Since 2009 several hundred people have died in Xinjiang in attacks on police stations, train stations, and public markets. Some attacks have also taken place outside of Xinjiang. On March 1, 2014, in one of the most serious incident to date, 8 knife-wielding men and women attacked a crowd at Kunming train station, in Yunnan province, killing 29 and injuring 143, according to official accounts.

At the same time, the Chinese government has long manipulated the threat of terrorism to justify its crackdown on the 10 million ethnic Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Human rights violations documented by Human Rights Watch in recent years include broad denial of political, cultural and religious rights, torture and enforced disappearances, extensive censorship, and pervasive socio-economic discrimination.

"While terrorism poses grave threats to society, overbroad and abusive counterterrorism measures can also inflict grave harm and exacerbate conflict," Richardson said.

"Harsh measures that conflate political or religious dissent with crime discourage ordinary people from trusting or cooperating with law enforcement agencies."

Over the past three years hundreds of people have been killed by law enforcement personnel in what the authorities claimed were counterterrorism operations, raising serious concerns about regular disproportionate use of force, especially since China systematically prevents independent monitoring of the region. This situation makes it impossible to assess the veracity of general and specific claims by the Chinese government of terrorist incidents or threats.

To reduce the risk of militancy and politically motivated violence, Human Rights Watch said, the Chinese government should immediately remove curbs on the rights to freedom of expression, religion and association, strengthen the independence of the judiciary, end torture and ill-treatment of criminal suspects, and strengthen effective human rights protections.

"Targeting people for attack is never justified, but committing human rights violations is no way to stop such horrific violence," said Richardson. "The Chinese government needs to respect rights, not build a new architecture of surveillance."

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