China and the International Human Rights Covenants

Author: James D. Seymour and Patrick Yuk-tung Wong


In 1966 the UN passed two International Human Rights Covenants that are among the great achievements of humankind. The covenants were adopted in five equally binding languages, one of which was Chinese. The People's Republic of China (PRC) is generally assumed to have ratified one and signed (but not ratified) the other. In 1973, however, soon after the PRC began representing China in the UN, new Chinese-language versions of each mysteriously came into existence. These are the versions one is likely to find on the UN website, and they are what the Chinese government treats as the “covenants.” The authors of this article show that these contain substantial revisions from the covenants that had been passed by the UN 1966 and subsequently ratified by at least 164 countries. The revised versions are so different, in fact, that one could well question whether the PRC actually embraced either covenant. The covenants granted rights that the revisions would later withdraw, and in at least one case the revisions recognize a right that is absent in the covenants. Based on their comparative analysis of the various versions, the question arises as to whether China is a responsible actor in the international legal order and a reliable partner when it comes to entering into agreements with other countries or acceding to international treaties. Given that China comprises over one-fifth of humanity, it also brings into question whether the principles in the covenants can claim absolute validity and anything like universal acceptance.

Regions: East Asia
Countries: China
Topics: Human Rights

Download complete article from Taylor & Francis Online

December 2015
© 2007 ILO/Crozet M.