U.N. women's rights panel accuses China of harassing activists

A Chinese national flag flies in front of Beijing Telegraph Building on a hazy morning in central Beijing, February 28, 2013. REUTERS/Petar Kujundzic (Reuters)

By Stephanie Nebehay GENEVA (Reuters) - A United Nations women's rights watchdog has accused China of trying to silence activists and said some who had come to Geneva to testify about the country's record "fear reprisals" upon return. At least one female activist was prevented from going to the Swiss city under "travel restrictions" imposed by China, and others alleged their reports had been censored by "state agents", the panel said, calling for a halt to such practices. The U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), whose 23 independent experts conducted a regular review of Beijing's record, also urged Chinese authorities to halt forced abortions and "infanticide of girls". In its conclusions, released on Friday, the panel urged China to "take all necessary measures to protect woman human rights defenders, including those who have provided information to the Committee, and take steps to ensure that in the future no travel restrictions are placed on individuals/human rights defenders". "It is always a concern for us, that defenders of women's rights are totally free from fear and restrictions," Nicole Ameline, a French expert chairing the U.N. panel, told Reuters. "Human rights defenders have an important role in the combat against impunity," she added. The U.N. experts recognized government efforts to curb the practice of identifying a fetus' sex for non-medical reasons and sex-selective abortions, as well as forced abortions and sterilizations resulting in what it called "the unbalanced sex-ratio between girls and boys". "However, the Committee remains concerned that these illegal practices persist ... and that infanticide of girl (children), particularly girls with disabilities, have not been completely eradicated," it said. "STATE SECRETS" China's Communist leaders say their one-child policy has prevented 400 million births since 1980 in their country, the world's most populous with nearly 1.4 billion people. Critics blame it for decades of forced abortions, infanticide and child trafficking. Despite a recent relaxation of the policy, women who violate it are subjected to fines, deprived of paid maternity leave and have difficulty registering their children, the U.N. panel said. "In China, the number of abortions, domestic violence, and rapes are state secrets", said Yoko Hayashi, a committee member from Japan who served as its rapporteur on China. The official birth rate for first-born children showed 118 boys for every 100 girls, against 113 boys for 100 girls just four years ago, she said. "Without infanticide, it cannot be," Hayashi told Reuters. "Sex-selective abortions have become more common." The panel urged China to "ensure that women have effective access to justice, including through the provision of legal aid, including to women involved in land claims". "The Committee is also concerned at reports of political interference with the judiciary, which affects the consideration as well as the outcomes of cases, particularly those concerning land disputes involving women," it added. (Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by Andrew Roche)