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China faces unprecedented UN human rights scrutiny

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Human rights activists here and abroad, however, express hopes that Monday's meeting will indeed help speed China's efforts to improve its rights record.

"International pressure is very helpful and very, very necessary to improve the human rights situation here," says Li Heping, a well-known human rights lawyer who has himself been kidnapped and beaten up for his work.

"The UN report that comes out of this meeting could have a positive impact" if it reflects independent assessments of China's record, he adds.

Even if Chinese diplomats refuse to answer the hard questions that some European and other delegations plan to put at the council meeting, "that would be good for us to show them up for what they are," says Juliette de Rivero, a Human Rights Watch activist in Geneva.

The Human Rights Council replaced the discredited UN Human Rights Commission, where China had always been able to mobilize its diplomatic allies in procedural motions to avoid any examination at all of its human rights record.

Under a new system known as the Universal Periodic Review, every UN member's record is automatically scrutinized by the council every four years. Even this procedure, however, is not immune from manipulation.

When Cuba came up for examination last Thursday, its allies on the council took up most of the meeting with paeans of praise for the Caribbean island's achievements in healthcare and education, leaving little time for critics to ask questions about political prisoners or freedom of speech.

China could encourage its friends to adopt the same tactic. In that case, warns Mr. Schaefer, the event will be "more of a show than a substantial assessment of China's human rights progress."

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