Tuesday, July 15, 2008

UNFPA and China

Activist, lawyer and prisoner of conscience, Chen Guangcheng

I posted recently on UNFPA and its involvement with China’s One-Child Policy. The one-child policy must rank among the most appalling human rights abuses of our age and yet in spite of some high profile cases hitting the headlines, the West remains largely indifferent to the suffering and degradation of millions of women across China in the name of population control.

The one-child policy, which began in 1979 and was formally codified into Chinese national law in 2002, denies women the basic human right to have children. Couples who choose to have a second child face crippling fines or ‘social compensation fees’ that can amount to 10 times the average annual household income. They are also subjected to ‘disciplinary’ and ‘administrative’ punishments, demotion, dismissal from work, expulsion from the Party (a requirement for certain jobs), the destruction of property and loss of education and health care for the child. Human rights organisations such as Amnesty International have repeatedly condemned the subjection of women to forced abortion and sterilisation and the active persecution of activists campaigning against the one-child policy.

Two such activists are Mao Hengfeng and Chen Guangcheng. Chen Guangcheng is a blind lawyer and activist who was placed under house arrest in 2005 after talking to reporters from Time magazine about thousands of forced abortion and sterilisation cases he had uncovered. Whilst under house arrest he was repeatedly beaten, as were lawyers who tried to talk with him. He was then formally arrested, his lawyers were detained shortly before his trial and he was sentenced to four years and three months imprisonment during a trial that lasted under two hours. In January 2007, Chen’s final appeal was thrown out.

Mao Hengfeng
Mao Hengfeng speaks for a generation of women in China who have been abused and silenced in the name of the one-child policy. A mother of twin girls, Mao refused an abortion when she became pregnant with her third child, was detained in a psychiatric hospital and dismissed from her job. When pregnant with her fourth child she was coerced into an abortion and, as a result, began campaigning for justice for herself and others.

Her outspoken protests led to her being sentenced to eighteen months ‘re-education through labour’ without trial. During that time she was denied medical treatment and subjected to torture because she refused to acknowledge wrongdoing. Following her release, Mao and her husband continued campaigning and were repeatedly beaten, harassed, abused and detained by the authorities. In 2006, Mao was sentenced to two and a half years' imprisonment for allegedly breaking lamps in the guesthouse where she was being detained.

Congressman Chris Smith, Vice Chairman of the House Committee on International Relations, warned: “Her [Mao’s] case is among the most egregious examples of China’s mistreatment of women who do not comply with China’s draconian policies, but in addition to Mao, there are thousands more.”

UNFPA and China
In 2004, the Director of UNFPA’s Asia and Pacific Division, Sultana Aziz, wrote to the US Department of State and made the following claims:

“UNFPA does not support China’s one-child policy and has proactively engaged in serious dialogue with the Chinese government on this issue.”

This claim lacks any credibility in the face of the facts. Not only has UNFPA provided Chinese Family Planning officials with the technical and medical equipment necessary to facilitate the one-child policy, but Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, the executive director of UNFPA has publicly praised China’s population control policy, claiming that “China, having adopted practical measures in accordance with her current situation, has scored remarkable achievements in population control.” Earlier in 2001, the UNFPA representative in China, Sven Burmester, told British reporters: "For all the bad press, China has achieved the impossible. The country has solved its population problem." This was in the same year one county in China was ordered to perform 20,000 abortions and sterilisations before the end of the year, many of them performed by force to meet the quota.

Mr Aziz also claims:
“China is committed to the ICPD [International Conference on Population and Development] and is steadily, incrementally and firmly moving beyond demographic targets towards a voluntary and client-oriented FP [family planning] approach. UNFPA has been catalytic in fostering, supporting and guiding the transition.”

As the Congress report in which these claims are cited goes on to state, UNFPA’s efforts simply “miss the mark” as “they are narrowly tailored to expand access to reproductive health information and to allow couples and individuals to select their contraceptive methods in compliance with the national and provincial regulations. Their end result is not that couples and individuals may freely make decisions as to the number and spacing of their children. Rather in counties where the UNFPA operates, China continues to implement its coercive laws and practices.” Moreover, whereas the UNFPA-China agreement requires counties involved with the scheme to end targets and quotas, it “does not require them to eliminate coercive ‘administrative’ or ‘disciplinary’ punishments – thus continuing to reflect UNFPA’s support for China’s coercive program.”

Four years on, with activists still being imprisoned and terrorised for exposing cases of forced abortion and sterilisation, it is difficult to see any evidence of the steady, incremental and firm move towards ‘a voluntary and client-oriented FP approach’ the UNFPA speaks of with such determination.

In the words of Harry Wu, a human rights campaigner who spent 12 years in China’s labour camps before seeking refuge in the United States:

“To give birth is a basic human right. No government, organisation, or individual should, based on political, economic, cultural, religious and racial reasons, deprive a human being's right to give birth. To give birth is also an act of nature, and try as we might, we cannot always control a human being's reproductive system. To violently punish a woman and her unborn child for natural consequences often beyond their control is the epitome of cruelty. And, to hold such power in the hands of a central totalitarian regime invites far too many human rights abuses to terrify the masses.”