China rights questioned weeks before Olympics

NEW YORK Thu Jun 19, 2008 9:17am EDT

A soldier watches the audience during a ceremony for the start of the Xinjiang leg of the Olympic torch relay at the Peoples Square in Urumqi, Xinjiang province, June 17, 2008. REUTERS/Reinhard Krause

A soldier watches the audience during a ceremony for the start of the Xinjiang leg of the Olympic torch relay at the Peoples Square in Urumqi, Xinjiang province, June 17, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Reinhard Krause

Related Video

Video

Olympic broadcasting rights

Thu, Jun 19 2008

NEW YORK (Reuters) - China promised to make improvements to human rights ahead of the Olympic Games but its record may have actually deteriorated in the run-up to the events in August, a human rights activist and writer says.

In its bid to host the 2008 Olympics, China promised such improvements as greater press freedoms but author Minky Worden says the opposite has been true.

"Right now, the evidence is that the Olympics are causing the human rights climate to deteriorate, not improve," Worden, media director of Human Rights Watch and editor of a book on the topic, told Reuters in an interview.

The book -- "China's Great Leap: the Beijing Games and Olympian Human Rights Challenges" -- addresses issues such as law enforcement and corruption, the imprisonment of activists and reporting restrictions.

As examples, she cited the imprisonment of activists who protested against forced evictions ahead of the games and criticized China's healthcare system in the context of the Olympics.

Human Rights Watch has asked world leaders to use their invitations to the high-profile opening ceremony as leverage to push China for reforms. It has also put pressure on sponsors such as Coca-Cola to use their influence to demand the release of prisoners or assured media freedom.

But Worden said sponsors had not taken this opportunity and she expressed disappointment at U.S. President George W. Bush's comment that he would attend as a sports fan.

The games offer China a chance to promote reform and let the country show how it has changed since the bloody 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, Worden said.

But for that to become a reality, much must happen before the August 8 opening ceremony, Worden said, adding that the International Olympic Committee should put pressure China to live up to its promises.

"The IOC has a responsibility since the pledges of human rights improvement were (made) to the IOC," she said.

Worden welcomed China's official lifting of press restrictions in January 2007, with changes such as allowing reporters to conduct interviews without government permission. But Beijing appeared to tighten controls after anti-China protests in Tibet in March.

"The changes to the law were initially very welcome but, with the Tibet protests, large sections of the country have been closed off to reporters," Worden said.

She said there was a "real concern" that reporters who have covered past Olympics had still not received visas to allow them to enter China to cover the games.

According to Worden, the major test of the success of the Olympics would be how China handles protests, which are almost certain around the time of the games.

"The worst-case scenario would be an overreaction to the entirely predictable protests that will happen and a crackdown on reporters trying to do their jobs," she said.

(Reporting by Sinead Carew; Editing by John O'Callaghan)