HRC34 | Urge China to amend laws, investigate torture and release detained defenders

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In Geneva, it does not go entirely unnoticed that China continues to engage in a sustained crackdown which aims to gag, discredit, or intimidate into silence virtually any dissenting voices in the country. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in his annual global update to the UN’s top human rights body, raised a number of serious concerns in Asian countries. On China specifically, he deplored ‘the intimidation and detention of lawyers and activists who seek the good of their community and nation’ and added: ‘I am also disturbed by cases of restrictions on cultural and religious rights, particularly in Xinjiang and Tibet’.

ISHR will add its voice to these concerns in a statement to be delivered Wednesday. However, it seems that China is not interested in getting the message.

Take this example.

Last week, an NGO representative raised concerns in a discussion at the Human Rights Council about restrictions on freedom of movement, access to education and peaceful assembly and association in Uyghur minority areas of China, generally under the guise of counter-terrorism measures. These same concerns were widely covered by media outlets like the BBC, Time magazine and Al Jazeera, as well as by non-governmental organisations like Human Rights Watch. Many have denounced the detention, arrest and prosecution of Tibetan education rights activist Tashi Wangchuk for ‘inciting separatism’.

China took the floor especially to express its objections to the statements by ‘certain NGOs’, and asserted that counter-terrorism ‘has never been linked with a certain religion or ethnicity’ and that the ‘economic, social and educational rights’ of all minorities, including Uyghurs, are fully respected. The delegate concluded by noting that the public security organs ‘carried out the management and issuance of passports according to relevant law’.

This case is just one sign among many of a worrying trend of double standards on human rights by China, so worrying in fact that ISHR and 18 other organisations called on governments to speak out collectively against human rights violations in the country, using the venue of the Human Rights Council, in a joint letter released last month.

The rhetoric

The clear – and gaping – gaps between commitments by China and their actions to silence dissenting voices and suppress the work of human rights defenders should no longer be ignored.

Sarah M Brooks, Asia advocate at ISHR, notes, ‘No matter what issues they work on, or where they work, or with whom, or how they are defined, individuals and organisations working to protect and promote human rights in China face grave risks’.

Other objections by China have focused on the refusal that defenders should benefit from new or ‘special’ rights. Ms Brooks explains that on this point, she actually agrees with the Chinese government.

‘Human rights defenders deserve the full respect of the universal human rights recognised in the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration and their government’s treaty obligations, just like anyone else. However, the extraordinary risks and threats that they face may require special measures of protection to secure equal protection and enjoyment of these rights’.

Unfortunately, this substantive equity of treatment is not a reality for many of those working to raise awareness about human rights and to hold perpetrators of abuses accountable.

The reality

Defenders in the country are subject to surveillance, forced eviction or travel bans; deprived of access to their families or to lawyers of their own choosing; and forcibly disappeared – often under legal criminal measures such as ‘residential surveillance in a designated location’. They are also subject to torture and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment.

The Chinese government has abused its own criminal provisions to target defenders, criminalising their exercise of free speech as ‘picking quarrels’, or peaceful assembly as ‘disturbing public order’, or defence of freedom of religious belief as ‘subversion of state power’.

Human rights lawyer Xie Yang has been detained awaiting trial since 11 July 2015. In interviews with his defence lawyers in January of this year, he described his own experience of torture in detention:

‘To get [the interrogation] over with sooner, I wrote whatever they wanted me to write. Later, I completely broke down… From start to finish, they used my family and child to threaten me. They said, “Your wife is a professor at Hunan University… if you don’t come clean and explain things clearly, we’ll go after your wife without a doubt”’.

Xie’s lawyers are facing significant pressure to cease working on the case. One, Chen Jiangang, wrote an open letter titled In the event that I lose my freedom on 3 March 2017:

‘I want to live to see the universal values of democracy, liberty, rule of law, and human rights realised in China. I want to see a constitutional system of government established… For all these reasons, I will not kill myself. If something unexpected happens to me, please know that it will absolutely not be because I committed suicide’.

Wang Qiaoling, Li Wenzu, Jin Bianling and Chen Guiqiu are the wives of detained lawyers, now defenders in their own right both in the country and in exile. They conclude a recent open letter to world leaders:

‘We urge the international community to call for Chinese authorities to investigate and hold accountable those responsible for torture. Human rights lawyers are the pride of China and should be set free immediately’.

The role of the Council

‘The Council has an important function, to be a place where the urgent human rights situations of our time are discussed,’ says Ms Brooks.

‘Regrettably, with China – and Cuba, Egypt, Venezuela, and others – in the membership, it is getting hard to press for accountability even in situations already on the Council’s agenda. Imagine how much harder it is to ensure responses to issues abour other country cases, such as China, despite the alarming regularity of attacks on fundamental human rights and the silencing of victims and their advocates’.

Indeed, many cases that have been brought to the Council’s attention continue without resolution.

  • Angela Gui has had no contact with her father, disappeared publisher Gui Minhai, since after she addressed the Council in September 2016.
  • After receiving a communication from a group of Special Procedures mandate holders on the case of Guo Feixiong (Yang Maodong), whose ill treatment in prison was raised by ISHR in June 2016, the Chinese government denounced the experts’ inquiry as a ‘rude intervention’ in China’s internal affairs. Guo’s lawyer, Li Jinxing, has had his law license suspended, reportedly in retaliation.
  • The August 2016 release on bail of lawyers Wang Yu and Zhang Kai, and the convictions of Zhou Shifeng, Gou Hongguo, Hu Shigen, and Zhai Yanmin, were characterised by procedural irregularities including televised confessions and closed courtrooms. All were charged with State security-related crimes. All were the subject of a statement delivered a year ago, at the Council’s 31st session.

‘It is critical that countries use the Council as a space where they can – collectively and individually, on issues from the death penalty to women’s rights – hold China’s record up to scrutiny,’ Ms Brooks concludes.

ISHR’s statement highlights the need for governments to demand that China hear their concerns: that the government undertake transparent, impartial investigations into allegations of torture; repeal criminal provisions used to target defenders; and cease the abuse of State secrets charges.

‘A credible Council – and a China that is truly a responsible leader – can do no less. Detained defenders and their families deserve no less’.

For further information, you can reach Sarah at s.brooks[at] or follow her on Twitter @sarahmcneer.