The decision on the action plan comes at a time when China is being reviewed by the UN Committee Against Torture and three months before the United Nations Human Rights Council makes its universal review of the status of human rights.
China has signed both international human rights covenants enshrined in the United Nations Human Rights' Charter but has refused to ratify an agreement on safeguarding civil and political rights.
Under the plan the government’s Information Office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will lead the way in drawing up the plan. More than 50 government departments and non-government organisations as well as major universities will also have a say in the plan.
Many observers have welcomed the initiative. Joshua Rosenzweig, Hong Kong representative of the Dui Hua Foundation, a US-based rights advocacy group, called the action plan an “historic” step to improve human rights in the country, adding however that “we need to see how ambitious the plan is and whether it will truly bring about a great deal of change.”
The Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD), whilst welcoming the initiative, said the plan falls short of its stated objective, failing among other things to name the experts that are supposed to work on the project.
The CHRD is concerned that the plan may not be designed to promote human rights but be simply a way to placate the international community.
It urged the government to show its good will by, for example, inviting independent human rights activists and groups to participate in the drafting process, by making a draft of the plan available to the public, by establishing an independent national human rights commission as well as by taking effective measures against torture and arbitrary detention and by ensuring freedom of speech, press and an independent judiciary.
For Beijing-based human rights activist and attorney Teng Biao the action plan was an apparent response to rising international pressure during the Olympics over the country's poor human rights record and escalating social conflicts caused by rights violations.
Last month the European Parliament also showed its disapproval of China's human rights record by awarding its prestigious Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought this year to Hu Jia (pictured), who was recently sentenced to three and half years in prison for “subversion.”
Ultimately “[w]ithout an overhaul of the system, without an independent judicial system, without freedom of the press, people should not expect to see much improvement in human rights in the country,” Mr Teng said.