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Western countries press China on minority rights, Hong Kong law as UN body reviews its rights record


GENEVA (AP) — Western countries used a U.N.-backed review of China's human rights record on Tuesday to press Beijing to do more to allow freedom of expression, protect the rights of ethnic minorities and repeal a security law in Hong Kong that is derided by independent activists, among other things.

China's ambassador in Geneva, Chen Xu, led a delegation from some 20 ministries in China for the review under the U.N. Human Rights Council. He stressed China's progress in poverty eradication, said citizens engage in “democratic elections,” and said freedom of religious belief is safeguarded.

“China upholds respect for and protection of human rights as a task of importance in state governance," Chen said through an interpreter. "We have embarked on a path of human rights development that is in keeping with the trend of the times and appropriate to China’s national conditions and so-called historic achievements in this process.”

“We uphold the people-centered philosophy and strive to deliver a better life for all the people,” he said.

The process, which encourages constructive recommendations over sharp criticism, nevertheless gave way to firm, if not scathing, advice to China from some leading Western countries.

Leslie Norton of Canada called on China to end “all forms of enforced disappearances targeting human rights defenders, ethnic minorities and Falun Gong practitioners” and urged the repeal of the Hong Kong security law.

Czech Ambassador Vaclav Balek urged China to “end the criminalization of religious and peaceful civil expression by ethnic and religious groups — including Muslim, Uyghurs and Buddhists, Tibetans and Mongolians — under the pretext of protecting state security" and “stop cross-border kidnappings and intimidating Chinese citizens living abroad."

Kozo Honsei, Japan's deputy permanent representative in Geneva, called for better protections of the rights of minorities in Tibet and the western Xinjiang region.

The hearing offered a wide-ranging look at the human rights situation in China. Bolivia's envoy commended China's efforts to reduce deforestation, Burundi's representative urged China to improve access to health care in central regions and to better housing in Hong Kong and Macao, and Iran praised China's “national action plan for human rights.”

An extraordinarily high number of more than 160 countries — some critics of Beijing, some allies — registered to take part in the discussion. That meant each country had a maximum of 45 seconds to speak, forcing some ambassadors into what at times felt like a speed-reading exercise.

China's delegation had a total of 70 minutes to make its case.

The “universal periodic review” involves all U.N. member states coming up for scrutiny — at times sharp — by other countries roughly every five years. The 3 1/2-hour discussion aims to offer constructive criticism and produce a written report that will offer recommendations, not criticism.

Several groups such as Falun Gong and pro-Tibet activists held small demonstrations outside the U.N. Geneva compound during Tuesday’s discussion.

Several human rights groups had events planned outside China's review, and the Tibet Advocacy Coalition, the World Uyghur Congress and human rights defenders in Hong Kong were expected to hold a joint news conference after the proceedings.

Another advocacy group aims to speak out against the forced repatriation from China of women from North Korea who fled the nation under leader Kim Jong Un's rule.

On Monday, four independent human rights experts who work under a mandate from the council called for the release of Jimmy Lai, a former Hong Kong publisher on trial for alleged national security violations, and for all charges against him to be dropped.

At China's last review in 2018, the United States and other countries voiced concerns about its treatment of Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang.