China Under Scrutiny at U.N. Human Rights Session

The three-week 35th session of the Human Rights Council began on Tuesday. The session has included the publication of a report on China by special rapporteur Philip Alston, who has previously praised China’s “admirable” achievements in poverty reduction but warned that these do not justify or offset rights abuses elsewhere. At Reuters, Stephanie Nebehay noted the Chinese response to Alston’s report and his continued expressions of concern for rights lawyer , with whom he met last year, and who has since been detained and arrested for subversion:

, U.N. special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, made an official mission to China last August and included a plea for the release of lawyer Jiang Tianyong in his report to the Council at a two-day debate.

Chinese diplomat Jiang Yingfeng told the Geneva forum that Alston’s report was “objective and fair” but also rebuked him.

“The special rapporteur referenced certain human rights defenders in his report and in so doing he has overstepped his mandate and meddled with China’s judicial sovereignty,” Jiang said.

China’s government would not tolerate any individual or group “using the banner of human rights” to cover up their activities, he added.

[…] Alston said: “I of course do not agree that there is something called judicial sovereignty which would lead a Special Rapporteur or this Council not to reflect on cases that appear to violate human rights, appear to be unjust, even if they are part of the judicial process.” [Source]

offers a brief overview of Alston’s report:

While the Special Rapporteur recognized China’s remarkable achievements in alleviating poverty, he rightly addressed the restrictions on ’s participation in shaping anti-poverty policies and programs, the violations of civil and political rights and economic and social rights arising from government action and inaction pertaining to anti-poverty work, and the lack of meaningful accountability mechanisms for such violations. As the Special Rapporteur noted, recently promulgated laws such as the Management of Foreign Non-Government Organizations and Charity Law further restrict the role NGOs play in advocacy around anti-poverty policy issues.

The findings of the Special Rapporteur are in line with Human Rights Watch’s own research. China’s top-down approach to anti-poverty work and the systematic disregard for human rights have grave consequences, especially among marginalized groups, such as children, persons with disabilities, and ethnic minorities. In recent years, we have documented government harassment and intimidation toward families who sought redress for their children suffering from industrial lead poisoning, the significant hurdles children with disabilities in China face in accessing education resulting in high illiteracy, unemployment and poverty rates among persons with disabilities, and the dislocation and marginalization stemming from the mass involuntary rehousing and relocation programs in Tibetan areas. [Source]

The organization went on to express concern at the obstruction Alston reported during his trip, and urge the Human Rights Council to condemn it. China’s foreign ministry has previously stated that “there is no such thing as the Special Rapporteur being interfered by the Chinese government,” dismissing claims of harassment connected with his visit as “even more preposterous.” Alston gave his version of events on page three of the report:

The Special Rapporteur commends the Government for inviting him to China, but would also wish to draw attention to some difficulties that arose in the course of the mission:

(a) The Government’s view that it was fully responsible for determining every detail of the agenda of the visit reflects a misunderstanding of the role of special rapporteurs as independent experts;

(b) The Government advised the Special Rapporteur not to make direct contact with civil society organizations to arrange meetings, and requested full details of any private meetings held. However, in conformity with established procedures, he notified the Government only when requested to do so by the civil society actor concerned;

(c) The Special Rapporteur was regularly followed by security officers posing as private citizens, thus making it virtually impossible to meet privately with civil society organizations and individuals;

(d) The Government warned the Special Rapporteur not to meet with individuals it considered “sensitive”, and those individuals were warned not to meet with the Special Rapporteur; in one case, a person with whom the Special Rapporteur was supposed to meet was taken into custody for a couple of hours, thus preventing the meeting from happening;

(e) As a result of these combined measures, the Special Rapporteur was unable to meet with the great majority of civil society actors with any degree of freedom or confidentiality;

(f) The Yunnan visit was organized by the Government in a way that ignored the Special Rapporteur’s stated preferences and ensured that most of the meetings and other activities were formalities;

(g) Both during and after the mission, certain individuals with whom the Special Rapporteur met or was supposed to meet were subjected to what appear to be acts of intimidation and reprisal. These matters were taken up by the Special Rapporteur, along with other relevant special procedure mandate holders, in a communication to the Government on 26 October 2016. This group subsequently issued a press release, on 6 December 2016, after the disappearance on 21 November 2016 of human rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong, whom the Special Rapporteur had met in Beijing. [Source]

The obstruction Alston reported is part of a broader pattern of interference with human rights work by and at the United Nations. China has faced repeated accusations of attempting to intimidate activists at U.N. sessions and otherwise suppress civil society participation. In 2015 it mounted an unsuccessful attempt to allow countries to criticize NGOs anonymously during the U.N. accreditation process. Last year, it was part of a group of nations that blocked applications for U.N. consultative status by NGOs including the Committee to Protect Journalists. HRW’s Sophie Richardson wrote late last month that Chinese rights abuses have threatened to “infect” the U.N., citing the expulsion of Uyghur activist Dolkun Isa from the U.N. headquarters in New York during a forum on indigenous issues, despite full accreditation:

This was not an isolated incident. In January, as the UN welcomed Chinese President Xi Jinping to its Geneva office, it sent home roughly 3,000 UN staff, citing “logistical” needs – while also preventing nongovernmental organizations from entering the complex. In introducing President Xi, Secretary-General Guterres praised China for its commitment to multilateralism and to the UN, but raised no concerns about human rights violations.

It’s been three years since the 2014 death in detention of activist , who was imprisoned by Chinese authorities for her efforts to participate in China’s Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council. To this day China has given no adequate explanation for her death, let alone punish anyone who might be responsible. And in just a few weeks UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty Philip Alston will report on his August 2016 visit to China, during which officials restricted his investigations.

The UN leadership should get serious about eradicating the “disease” of human rights violations and protecting this critical pillar of UN work. That means publicly assuring China’s human rights advocates that the UN belongs equally to them, and to push back forcefully against China’s efforts to undermine these mechanisms. [Source]

This week, HRW’s U.N. director Louis Charbonneau noted China’s efforts to undermine human rights monitoring of peacekeeping efforts, towards which it has become a major contributor:

It’s mostly happening under the radar. Very few journalists cover the UN budget consultations. Yet numerous diplomats who follow the budget talks told Human Rights Watch that a basement conference room has become a site for hotly contested “horse trading” over the future of human rights monitoring in UN peacekeeping. They spoke on condition of anonymity, saying it was important to highlight what China is trying to do.

Human rights officers monitor, investigate, and report on alleged abuses, and their presence can deter killings, kidnappings, and other violations.

Beijing’s negotiators, backed by Russia and some other UN members, want to eliminate 19 human rights experts in the Central African Republic, diplomats said. The move would effectively end the UN’s ability to monitor violence against women and children there, according to one western diplomat. China also wants funding cuts at missions in Mali and South Sudan that could harm human rights monitoring, according to diplomats and draft resolutions reviewed by Human Rights Watch.

Several diplomats said China was also pushing to defund some human rights posts at the UN mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, MONUSCO – despite the rights abuses piling up there. In March, two UN experts investigating extrajudicial killings in the country’s Kasai province were murdered. [Source]

Former House Foreign Affairs Committee adviser Dennis P. Halpin wrote at The National Interest that China is resisting efforts to add iconic images from the June 4, 1989 crackdown to UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register:

[…] Former Tiananmen activist Yang Jianli and his human-rights organization, Initiatives for China, have been pushing for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Memory of the World Register to accept images and a video of Tank Man. Voice of America, in a June 4, 2016, report, quoted Yang as stating that “China, of course, is definitely going to push back (on the Tank Man nomination). China has tremendous influence with the U.N.”

A final decision from the UNESCO director-general on Tank Man is expected in the near future. Hopefully UNESCO will not succumb to fake news and will make an intellectually honest decision. But Big Brother in Beijing—one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council—will be watching. [Source]

The International Service for Human Rights’ Sarah M. Brooks also described China’s activities at the U.N. in a recent article at The Diplomat, writing that “it would be nearly impossible to think of more red flags” for human rights than currently exist in China, and that “a government willing to suppress dissent and maintain its power at any cost is not a government we want making decisions about the future of the international order”:

At the UN, the Chinese government regularly questions the legitimacy of UN experts, the mandate and expertise of UN treaty body members, and the role of the Human Rights Council in clearly addressing country-specific situations. China and a handful of other countries like Burundi, Cuba, Iran, Russia, and Sudan are ardent gatekeepers of a Committee that grants NGOs the right to enter UN grounds and participate in UN meetings.

At the same time as it throws wrenches into the existing system, the Chinese government increasingly refines its own version of human rights with Chinese characteristics. They blast any critical dialogue as unconstructive, and dismiss the majority of independent civil society voices as biased and non-objective. They advance apparently anodyne concepts like a “community of shared future for mankind,” which are, in fact, a dangerous threat to the universality of human rights and the foundations of the UN system.

The UN fails to respond effectively to this challenge, at all levels. In a speech delivered at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva in January 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping gave remarks about the future of China’s leadership in global governance. No UN official – not the president of the General Assembly, not the director of the UN Office in Geneva, and not the secretary general – raised concerns about China’s human rights record.

In a blow to generally-accepted UN practices (and principles), independent journalists and NGOs were not given access to the event and access to the grounds was restricted; when pressed later, UN officials admitted that this was a price they were willing to pay for the president’s presence. They added that they didn’t really have a choice. [Source]

Xinhua, meanwhile, reported admonitions from other countries’ delegations to the ongoing HRC session that echoed many of China’s favored talking points against “politicized,” “selective,” and “unbalanced” rights criticism:

Pakistan, speaking on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, said that technical assistance and capacity building should be made available to countries to enable them to deliver human rights, and a balanced approach to various categories of rights should be adopted.

It added that politicization and selectivity in the application of human rights should not be allowed, and sincere and mutual cooperation, and due consideration of religious and cultural values need to be respected.

Egypt, speaking on behalf of a group of countries, stated that it was necessary to avoid naming and shaming in any process designed to protect and promote human rights.

It also highlighted that ensuring non selectivity and objectivity, respect for cultural particularities and diversity in the development of countries was essential in order to implement effectively human rights around the world. [Source]

At Access Now, Alyse Rankin and Peter Micek examined the freedom of expression, digital rights, and other issues the session will address:

Delegates from 47 nations are examining expert reports on issues including online hate speech, harassment and persecution of journalists and human rights defenders, data collection and dis-aggregation for advancing human rights, and the role of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in facilitating the fulfillment of other human rights, such as the rights to health, education, and participation in public debate, particularly for marginalized groups.

[…] The HRC is scheduled to discuss the new report by David Kaye, the U.N. special rapporteur on the freedom of expression, regarding threats like internet shutdowns, network discrimination, and excessive government surveillance, and the responsibility corporations have to respect human rights in the digital space. This year, Kaye focuses on the telcos, internet service providers, and infrastructure and equipment vendors making up the “digital access sector.” Next year, he’ll cover platforms, applications, and services.

[…] While there are no internet-specific resolutions expected at HRC35 — this is an off-year for the free expression resolution — we may see others, such as on the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, that could touch on digital rights issues. [Source]