U.N. Condemns Political Detentions in China

The Guardian’s Benjamin Haas reported on Friday on an unreleased U.N. Human Rights Council report condemning China’s treatment of three political prisoners, church leader Hu Shigen and lawyers Zhou Shifeng and Xie Yang.

“The appropriate remedy would be to release , and immediately, and accord them an enforceable right to compensation and other reparations,” said the UN report seen by the Guardian, adding that China should take action within six months.

The UN’s working group on arbitrary , which reviewed the case, rejected Chinese government claims the three men voluntarily confessed to their crimes at their trials and said their detentions were “made in total or partial non-observance of the international norms relating to the right to a fair trial”.

The group is a panel of five experts that falls under the UN’s human rights council, of which China is a member. While its judgements are not legally binding, it investigates claims of rights violations and suggests remedies.

China promised to cooperate with the group when it ran for a seat on the human rights council in August 2016, when it also pledged to make “unremitting efforts” to promote human rights.

[…] “The working group’s opinion cuts straight through the government’s lies and shows that the arrests were always about retaliation against lawyers for protecting human rights,” said Frances Eve, a researcher at the Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders. “The government put enormous resources into their propaganda campaign to smear human as ‘criminals’, deploying state media, police, prosecutors and the courts.” [Source]

The New York Times’ Nick Cumming-Bruce provided more details on the three men on Monday:

Mr. Xie, a 45-year-old lawyer who had defended mainland supporters of Hong Kong pro-democracy protests, was arrested in July 2015 and held in isolation in a secret detention center. In transcripts of meetings with his lawyers, which they released in January, Mr. Xie told of torture and abuse inflicted by interrogators, who threatened to turn him into an “invalid” unless he confessed. [Xie was reportedly released in May, but remains under heavy surveillance in what has been described as a “non-release ‘release’.”]

[…] Mr. Hu, 62, an outspoken advocate of religious freedom and democracy who led several underground churches and had already served a 16-year prison term, was sentenced last year to seven and half years in prison.

Mr. Zhou, 52, described by prosecutors as a radical who conspired with foreign governments and rights groups to take on cases that undermined the Communist Party, was sentenced last year to seven years in prison. Mr. Zhou had led a firm of a hundred lawyers that handled numerous cases deemed sensitive by the authorities, representing the dissident artist Ai Weiwei, members of the banned Falun Gong movement and the victims of a contaminated baby formula scandal in 2008. [Source]

The report follows repeated calls by U.N. Special Rapporteurs for information on the case of rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong. Beijing has grown increasingly dismissive of outside pressure on rights issues, and has used its growing political and economic influence to prevent much of it from occurring in the first place. At the same time, it has mounted a concerted effort to undermine the U.N.’s rights-related activities, as a recent report from Human Rights Watch described. Reported interference has included obstruction of inspections, efforts to erode human rights monitoring of peacekeeping operations, intimidation of activists, and other suppression of civil society participation. In 2015 China mounted an unsuccessful attempt to allow countries to criticize NGOs anonymously during their 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. In May, citing the expulsion of Uyghur activist Dolkun Isa from the U.N. headquarters in New York despite full accreditation, Human Rights Watch’s Sophie Richardson wrote that Chinese rights abuses have threatened to “infect” the organization.

At China Change earlier this month, Andrea Worden wrote that China is going beyond obstruction into cooption as it seeks “to frame the Chinese view as a new approach to global human rights governance, with China at the helm” and use its accomplishments in poverty reduction to deflect accusations of rights violations.

The Chinese Mission to the UN Office at Geneva has vigorously promoted China’s views on human rights in the Human Rights Council this year through resolutions, statements and side events under the rubric of “a community of shared future” –– an indication that China is taking more concrete and assertive steps to position itself as a leader in the Human Rights Council.

Despite the fact that the UN human rights framework is grounded on the principle of the universality, indivisibility and interdependence of all human rights, China nonetheless is pushing its version of “human rights with Chinese characteristics,” which prioritizes the right to development and economic rights over individual civil and political rights, and insists on a relativistic approach to human rights based on each country’s unique history, culture, values, and political system.

[…] In an official statement on the website of the Chinese Mission to the UN Office at Geneva, the Chinese government overstates the significance of the inclusion of its “community of shared future” slogan in the resolutions adopted during HRC34. In both the resolutions, the phrase appears in one of many preambular (i.e., introductory, not operative) clauses, tucked among other aspirational language. The official Chinese statement proclaims, however: “This is the first time that the concept of ‘community of shared future for human beings’ is incorporated into the Human Rights Council resolutions, officially making it an important part of the international human rights discourse.” The PRC statement goes on to claim that the adoption of this concept “demonstrates China’s growing influence and ability to set the agenda in international human rights governance.”

[…] Governments and civil society actors will have an important opportunity to address China’s efforts to replace settled UN human rights norms with “human rights with Chinese characteristics”’ standards, along with a multitude of other human rights issues, when China undergoes its third Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in the fall of 2018. China will likely use its next UPR as a platform to bolster its leadership role in the HRC. Many of China’s supporters or those beholden to it will undoubtedly praise China’s June 2017 resolution on development and extol the wisdom of “building a community of shared future for humankind.” The deadline for civil society reports is March 2018, and China’s national report is due by the end of July 2018. Governments are also supposed to consult with domestic civil society groups and other stakeholders in the drafting of their national report. Cao Shunli died because of her efforts to participate in the formulation of China’s national report for its second UPR in October 2013. To honor her memory and struggle, the US and other like-minded national governments and international NGOs should actively support Chinese civil society efforts to participate in the UPR process. [Source]

Last month, a group of rights organizations called for U.S. sanctions against two officials they held responsible, “under the principle of command responsibility,” for Cao’s death.

Georgetown Law Asia’s Thomas Kellogg addressed the issue last week at Foreign Policy:

China also looks to influence the debate within key U.N. human rights mechanisms, including the Human Rights Council. Whenever China’s rights record comes up for debate at the Human Rights Council, China calls on friendly states to propagandize on its behalf. Because these governments know that China will return the favor when they themselves are up for review, they are only happy to oblige. In 2013, for example, the Cuban delegation to the Human Rights Council openly praised the Chinese government’s crackdown on dissent, saying that it “appreciated measures against criminal activities and encouraged China to continue defending its sovereignty.” China later returned the favor, stating that it “congratulated Cuba on its achievements in the field of human rights.” Such diplomatic horse-trading makes an apolitical, fact-based assessment of a country’s progress on human rights all the more difficult.

[…] What’s different today versus 10 or 20 years ago is the level of influence China enjoys, and the growing unwillingness of some states to push back against Chinese manipulation and intimidation. In other words, China is able to make greater and more effective use of its toolkit, at a lower reputational cost. Government officials in Washington, London, and Brussels should take note and find ways to bolster the U.N. human rights system as a whole.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the White House at least, there is no evidence that the United States government will take action to push back against China at the U.N. Instead, the Trump administration is itself taking steps to undermine both the U.N. as a whole and its human rights system in particular in ways that actually dovetail with China’s own efforts.

[…] At the risk of stating the obvious, Chinese citizens have virtually no role in determining their government’s approach to key foreign-policy questions. That won’t change anytime soon: Beijing would not look favorably on domestic criticism of its efforts to weaken U.N. human rights organs. Americans, of course, face no such restrictions. Those of us who believe in human rights as a key element of the liberal international order should use our voice and our vote to push Washington to resume its role as a stalwart defender of the U.N. human rights system. The vitality and the effectiveness — and possibly even the viability — of these U.N. rights bodies may well depend on it. [Source]

The Center for Strategic and International Studies’ China Power Project offers a broader assessment of China’s involvement with the U.N., from financial and peacekeeping contributions to its Security Council voting and veto record.