Low expectations for the 17th round of the U.S.-China Human Rights Dialogue, conducted on July 23 and 24 in Washington, were borne out by Assistant Secretary Michael Posner’s briefing yesterday. Posner’s main points were that the dialogue is not a negotiation, but rather “just a piece” of “365 days a year” effort to advance human rights. “I am not,” he told the press, “going to characterize every response we got from the Chinese government” in response to the issues and cases raised. That’s too bad. China’s claims that peaceful democracy advocates are “criminals” and the Dalai Lama a “wolf in monk’s robes” are more effective self-indictment of their policies than any U.S. rhetoric.
But for reasons just like the ones Posner asserted – that the dialogue is not special, not public and not results-oriented – human rights groups no longer take it seriously. In advance of the dialogue, Human Rights Watch called it a “rhetorical shell.” HRW also pressed China on its lack of democratic institutions. This is obvious in one way, but refreshing considering that actively supporting democracy in China has disappeared from U.S. policy.
For its part, the group China Human Rights Defenders wondered:
With so many rounds of the human rights dialogue … what, if anything, has been achieved by these talks? Are there any tangible results or positive outcomes that the US government can point to? Or is the only “result” merely the convening of the dialogue?
Chinese activists would be encouraged if the dialogue were expanded to include them. The U.S. side would like to, Posner said, but “to date, we haven’t been able to persuade the Chinese government to do that.”
Instead, Posner spent two days with the head of the bureau of International Organizations and Conferences, for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, and the rest of the Chinese delegation. The agenda included a visit to the Supreme Court. At almost precisely the same time, Thomas Donilon, the National Security Adviser, visited China to reportedly discuss with general secretary Hu Jintao, incoming general secretary Xi Jinping, and other top Chinese officials China’s obstructionism over Syria and other matters.
Donilon won’t claim that his meetings are inconsequential, or part of a broader effort on human rights and democracy. Posner shouldn’t either, but he’s been left all alone by an administration that unilaterally disarms itself on human rights and asks him to carry out a “dialogue” rather than negotiate for releases of political prisoners, or create consequences for their arrest in the first place.