Why China Should Unsign the International Covenant on Civil & Political Rights

By: Margaret K. Lewis


PDF: Why China Should Unsign the International Covenant on Civil & Political Rights


In March 2019, the United Nations Human Rights Council finalized its periodic review of China’s human rights record just as human rights in China were under intensified attack. As during prior reviews, China was criticized for its human rights practices. And, once again, China was urged to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which China signed over twenty years ago. It is time to reevaluate this approach.

This Article argues that the international community should change tack and instead call on China to remove its signature from this foundational human rights treaty. While this would be a brash and unusual strategy, it is sound as a matter of both law and politics. The anticipated upsides of confronting China about its failure to meet even the minimal obligations as a signatory outweigh the possible downsides of scaling back from the goal of universal participation.


This Article recognizes that China’s signing of the ICCPR has provided a justification for domestic actors to promote human rights protective reforms. The strength of this argument has, however, faded in recent years. A better path is to pursue a forthright approach whereby the international community rebukes the Chinese leadership’s retrograde motion on civil and political rights while supporting those within China who have looked to the ICCPR for inspiration.