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China-Australia rights dialogue appears set to resume amid skepticism about its usefulness

February 1, 2023

(, Jan31’23) – Even as the two countries have begun to normalize their trade and diplomatic relations after a long freeze especially after the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in early 2020, the Australian government has vowed to keep raising human rights concerns “at the highest levels” after Beijing’s ambassador urged it to avoid “trying to smear China”.

This was after China signaled its openness to resuming a dedicated human rights-focused dialogue with Australia for the first time in nine years, reported Jan 30.

The report cited China’s ambassador, Mr Xiao Qian, as implying that the offer was conditional on Australia taking a “constructive attitude” and the relationship returning to a more “normal” footing.

China already has such a bilateral dialogue arrangement with several Western governments and the European Union on condition that they refrain from criticizing China’s record openly and avoid issues like Tibet and Xinjiang. This has been a matter of controversy, all the more because no progress in human rights in China has been seen as a result of many years of these dialogues.

Kyinzom Dhongdue, a strategic campaigns lead for Amnesty International Australia and a Tibetan human rights campaigner, has said any human rights dialogue “must take place unconditionally”.

“To the Chinese government, normalizing the relationship means Australia first conforming to various Chinese government demands, including putting issues like human rights in Xinjiang off the table,” Dhongdue has noted.

“The Tibetans and Uyghurs seek real, tangible improvements in the human rights situation in Tibet or Xinjiang, not a dialogue for dialogue’s sake.”

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The report noted that the human rights dialogue between Australia and China began in 1997 and was once seen by both governments as a chance to “engage in a frank and constructive exchange of views at a senior level on human rights issues”. The two sides last held such a meeting, meant to be annual, in Beijing in 2014, with each side issuing contrasting accounts.

Xiao was stated to have floated the idea of resuming such talks when asked by Guardian Australia about human rights during a 90-minute press conference at the embassy in Canberra earlier this month.

“In future, I think we are ready to explore whether we can resume our human rights dialogue with the Australian side,” he has said, adding, China “would welcome any suggestion, any views expressed, but with constructive attitudes”.

He has explained that it would not be constructive or helpful to level “criticism in the name of freedom of speech” in order to “smear China” or undermine “the rule of the Chinese Communist party”.

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Responding to Xiao’s offer, and conditions, a spokesman for Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Dfat) has said, “The Australian government has and will continue to advocate directly with China on human rights issues, including at the highest levels.”

However, Elaine Pearson, the director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, remain skeptical, questioning “the point of having an annual friendly chat on human rights”.

She has warned against allowing such dialogue to become “merely a PR stunt to sidestep the thorny issues of human rights”.

“I think we are well beyond human rights dialogues when one government is committing serious abuses that amount to crimes against humanity and when one government is arbitrarily detaining the citizens of the other government,” Pearson has said.

“At this point, we need accountability for those crimes and there will be no accountability if the Chinese government continues to steadfastly deny the litany of abuses occurring in Xinjiang.”

The opposition foreign affairs spokesperson, Simon Birmingham, has said dialogue was “always preferable to standoff” but this should not prevent Canberra from “maintaining principled public positions” on human rights.


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