Obama Should Put Human Rights on the G20 Agenda In China

U.S. President Barack Obama listens to comments during a working session at a G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia on Friday
U.S. President Barack Obama listens to comments during a working session at a G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia on Friday, Sept. 6, 2013. World leaders are discussing Syria's civil war at the summit but look no closer to agreeing on international military intervention to stop it. (AP Photo/Dimitar Dilkoff, Pool)

When President Obama travels to China for the G20 economic summit on September 4, he will arrive amidst the worst crackdown on human rights activists since the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre. In what many China experts are warning is a dangerous new form of authoritarianism, China's President Xi Jinping has in the last two years jailed and "disappeared" hundreds of human rights activists and lawyers and denied many access to legal counsel or visits by family members, a violation of China's own laws and international commitments. Those eventually released are often coerced into publicly "confessing" that foreigners tried to use them to undermine the Chinese government. As the U.S. State Department's 2015 report on human rights in China notes: "Repression and coercion markedly increased during the year against organizations and individuals involved in civil and political rights advocacy and public interest and ethnic minority issues."

So what can the United States do about it?

It needs to do something, because the disease is contagious. Around the world, including in several other G20 states, governments are increasingly repressing and attempting to eliminate the independent non-governmental organizations that make up what we call "civil society." In fact, more than one hundred states have recently passed legislative restrictions on foreign funding and foreign cooperation with NGOs.

President Obama has repeatedly pointed to the importance of strong civil society during his presidency. In September 2013 he launched Stand with Civil Society -- "a global call to action to support, defend, and sustain civil society amid a rising tide of restrictions on its operations globally." His September 23, 2014 Presidential Memorandum instructing U.S. agencies to engage with civil society abroad pointed out: "The participation of civil society is fundamental to democratic governance. Through civil society, citizens come together to hold their leaders accountable and address challenges that governments cannot tackle alone."

The situation in China represents an alarming example of an attempt to destroy precisely such citizen efforts. In April, China passed a new Foreign NGO Management Law, scheduled to go into effect in January, which forbids foreign funding of all NGOs and gives Chinese security forces authority over them. Foreign NGOs may not engage in any activities that damage "China's national interests" or "ethnic unity," and individuals can be held criminally responsible for funding a foreign NGO engaged in activities that "split the country or damage national unity or subvert the state." The new law is expected to restrict the work of more than seven thousand independent rights and humanitarian organizations operating in China.

This follows a sweeping national security law China passed last year bolstering the power of its security forces and extending their reach to all areas of Chinese society, from culture to education to cyberspace. Human rights advocates in China worry the government will use the laws to target civil society activists.

U.S. officials have voiced concern about the new restrictions on foreign NGOs, but done nothing more to pressure China to revoke or modify its new law. President Obama's visit to China in September will likely be his last and best opportunity to make clear to the Chinese government undermining basic human rights, of its own citizens and of foreigners, will have negative consequences for U.S-China relations.

According to National Security Advisor Susan Rice, "Advancing democracy and respect for human rights is central to our foreign policy" and "profoundly in our interests."

President Obama seemed to recognize that when he went to Russia for the G20 summit in 2013. In St. Petersburg, he met with a broad range of rights activists, noting that "a country's strength ultimately comes from its people" and that "what makes a country democratic and effective in delivering prosperity and security and hope to people is when they've got an active, thriving civil society."

When he arrives in Hongzhou on September 4, President Obama should make clear to President Xi that the U.S. government supports independent civil society organizations focused on advancing human rights. As Human Rights First made clear in a recent letter to the president, he can do that in three clear ways:

1) Invite Chinese civil society and rights activists who are not in prison to meet with him;

2) Publicly call for the release of detained and imprisoned activists and an end to the arrests and trials of human rights lawyers on pretextual charges such as "subverting state power;" and

3) Speak out publicly against the anti-NGO law and other overly-restrictive laws in China that threaten civil society and rights activists.

To be most effective, President Obama should coordinate his statements of opposition with other G20 countries that share these concerns.

President Obama has made a strong case during his presidency that human rights is an important component of national security. He has acknowledged when the U.S. government hasn't always lived up to those values, and he's attempted to ensure the United States acts in accordance with international law and human rights principles going forward.

The G20 summit is an opportunity to make clear - to China and to all the G20 nations - that continued economic and other forms of cooperation with the U.S. government depends on their willingness to do the same.