Xinjiang Camps Scrutinized at U.N. Rights Review

In Geneva on Tuesday, China faced its third Universal Periodic Review (UPR) on human rights. UN News describes the process as follows:

Information and evidence are presented, and questions are asked by special independent experts (called “Special Rapporteurs”), and the UN’s Member States. Civil-society organisations can also submit questions and evidence through country representatives. The State under review is given a chance to explain the actions they have taken, or plan to take, to address the issues presented. Recommendations are officially made, and technical assistance is provided where needed. Each State review lasts about three and a half hours.

The UPR assesses the human rights obligations set out in: the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the human rights treaties ratified by the reviewed State, and international humanitarian law.

The reviewed State has the primary responsibility to implement the recommendations contained in the final report. Countries are expected to provide information on what they have been doing to make changes during their review, as well as on any developments on human rights when they undergo their following UPR. The international community and OHCHR are there to assist and provide technical help, in consultation with the country concerned.

The Human Rights Council can take a series of measures, such as specific investigations and the setting up of dedicated committees to put pressure on non-cooperating Member States, and draw the world’s attention to them. [Source]

Questions put to China can be found on the OHCHR website, together with other documentation for this and China’s two previous UPRs. Amnesty International’s William Nee surveyed some of this year’s questions on Twitter. At The Wall Street Journal, Josh Chin highlighted those focused on the ongoing mass detentions in Xinjiang:

With protesters against China marching outside, representatives from roughly a dozen countries, most of them Western, fired criticisms at the Chinese delegation about their country’s network of internment camps in the region as part of a broad review of China’s record by the Council.

Presenting in alphabetical order, Australia set the tone, calling on China to “cease the arbitrary of Uighurs and other Muslim groups in Xinjiang.”

Mark Cassayre, with the U.S. Mission to the U.N. in Geneva, was last among the critics, demanding China shut down the detention centers and release all detainees.

[…] “I do not believe the Chinese behavior will change,” said Nury Turkel, chairman of the Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project, who wasn’t in Geneva. He said Chinese President Xi Jinping’s government “wants to take control of the so-called Uighur problem once and for all.”

Turkey was among more than 50 Muslim countries in attendance at the review and the only one to come close to criticizing China over the Xinjiang issue on Tuesday, calling on the country to improve conditions for ethnic groups that are trying to “preserve their distinct identity, religion and language.” [Source]

The New York Times’ Nick Cumming-Bruce focused on the Chinese delegation’s responses:

“China is here to seek cooperation,” said its vice foreign minister, Le Yucheng, at the opening of a review by the Human Rights Council. He pointed to China’s achievements in lifting millions of people from poverty, largely skirting its treatment of ethnic minorities.

[…] Mr. Le, heading a delegation of more than 60 officials, brushed aside concerns about China’s crackdown on under President Xi Jinping. “Everybody is equal before the law,” he maintained. “Why are these criminals being praised as good people or human rights defenders?”

[…] “The threat of terrorism was quite serious,” said Yasheng Sidike, a member of the Chinese delegation at the hearing and the mayor of Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. “With these measures, the space for terrorism has been reduced.”

There have been no violent episodes in Xinjiang for 22 consecutive months, he said, and the people he described as “attendees” of the camps “never thought life could be so colorful and meaningful.”

[…] “China is trying to develop a response that can at least keep allies at the U.N. comfortable or deflect international criticism,” James Leibold, a China expert at La Trobe University in Australia. “What they probably fear the most is if this was to become one which Muslim countries start to think this is unacceptable. That would be far more damaging.” [Source]

A new report on Monday contrasting soaring security budgets with dwindling spending on education cast further doubt on official claims that the camps in Xinjiang are benign vocational schools.

On Wednesday, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying offered an extensive response to critics at the UPR:

Q: China underwent the third Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the United Nations Human Rights Council on November 6. Please give us more details.

A: […] The Chinese government attaches high importance to this review. We have sent a high-level delegation for this UPR, which is headed by Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng and comprised of representatives from nearly 20 departments of the central government, the Xinjiang and Tibet Autonomous Regions, and the governments of the Hong Kong and Macao Special Administrative Regions. The Chinese delegation elaborated on the remarkable achievements that China has made in the area of human rights since the last UPR in 2013, expounded the development path with Chinese characteristics and China’s outlook on human rights in the new era, illustrated the direction that China adheres to in terms of protecting and promoting human rights and announced the 30 new measures that China will take to safeguard human rights.

Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng said in his speech that over the past four decades of reform and opening-up, China’s human rights cause has been developing steadily and a well-established system to safeguard human rights has been put in place. China has become a country with rapid progress in its human rights cause, which has realized the large-scale poverty alleviation at the fastest pace, improved the institutional system which ensures that the people run the country, continuously enhanced the judicial protection of human rights, safeguarded Chinese citizens’ freedom of speech and religious belief in accordance with the law, promoted and protected the rights enjoyed by vulnerable groups in an all-round manner and conducted extensive international exchanges and cooperation on human rights. China has achieved in several decades what took developed countries several centuriestoachieve.On China’s vast land of 9.6 million square kilometers, nearly 1.3 billionpeople are living a peaceful, free and happy life, free from war, terror or displacement. It can be said that this is the progress in the area of human rights achieved at the fastest pace and also represents a tremendous contribution made by China to the global human rights endeavor.

The Chinese delegation took over 300 questions raised by more than 150 countries from a panoramic perspective. We have engaged in good and constructive dialogues with all relevant parties with an open, candid, inclusive and cooperative attitude. Over 120 countries including Russia, South Africa and Ethiopia took the floor to highly commend China’s development achievements, highly recognize the outlook on human rights with Chinese characteristics and speak highly of China’s human rights report and the keynote speech delivered by the head of the Chinese delegation. They said that China’s experiences and practices in safeguarding human rights and the right to development and eliminating poverty are worth learning and drawing upon. Meanwhile, certain western countries politicized the issue of human rights and pointed fingers at China on ethnic, religious and judicial issues. In response to this, the Chinese delegation enumerated a large number of facts and figures to forcefully refute that and make necessary clarifications, underlining that no one knows better than the Chinese people as to whether the in China are good or not and that no country can dictate the definitions and standards of democracy and human rights, let alone impose its own will on others.

I want to stress once again that there will always be room for improvement in human rights protection. China is willing to step up exchanges and mutual learning with all countries to pursue common progress on the basis of equality and mutual respect and with a responsible and constructive attitude. We will carefully and actively heed those sincere and constructive suggestions. Meanwhile, we firmly oppose and reject the politically-biased, malicious and unreasonable accusations made by a very small number of people. [Source]

Both Chinese and Western rights activists have offered rather different assessments of the “remarkable achievements” Hua cited. ’s Sophie Richardson told The Guardian on Monday that “what is most telling is that we are asking the same questions as we head into China’s third review. That some of the same issues are still coming up is a powerful statement of how little progress China has made.”

When a group of NGOs submitted a “Collection of Civil Society Reports” to the U.N. ahead of the review late last month, Chinese Human Rights Defenders shared a similarly dim view of China’s progress. While Hua claimed that “no one knows better than the Chinese people as to whether the human rights conditions in China are good,” CHRD noted that Chinese authorities had gone to great lengths to prevent any independent sharing of such knowledge.

CHRD and a group of China-based NGOs submitted information to the UN in March 2018 as a part of the UPR process. The NGO reports provide alternative assessments from the government’s own of the situation on the ground, with the intention to hold China to account for its pledge to implement some recommendations made by other States during the 2nd UPR in 2013. The reports reveal that, on a wide range of areas of civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights, the Chinese government has not honored its promises, and that the overall human rights situation in China has deteriorated.

[…] The NGO reports […] acknowledge very limited positive steps the government has taken in some areas. Among such developments are: reducing the number of crimes punishable by death, passing measures toward more inclusive educational opportunities for the disabled, adding new criminal and administrative penalties for violating environmental regulations, adopting an Anti-Domestic Violence Law, and taking some small steps to tackle unequal access to education by rural migrant children. The only area where the Chinese government has fully implemented a 2013 UPR recommendation is in abolishing the detention system; however, other forms of extrajudicial administrative detention continue to operate or are being expanded, such as detention in psychiatric hospitals, temporary facilities known as “black jails,” or custody and education detention camps for sex workers and compulsory drug detoxification centers.

There remain several overarching systemic problems in China that prevent the full realization of human rights in areas explored in the report, including the lack of government accountability and an independent judiciary, and repression on freedoms of expression, press, association, and assembly.

There is little public information about the UPR available inside China. The government has not invited any genuinely independent civil society groups to participate in a nationwide reflection on the country’s human rights problems and ways to reform. In preparation for these reports, NGOs based inside China took tremendous personal risks in conducting research and gathering information. They are likely to face aggressive persecution by the Chinese government, which has a tragic precedent: For seeking to participate in the 2009 and 2013 UPRs, human rights defender , who led efforts in preparing non-governmental reports, was arrested, mistreated, and eventually died in custody in March 2014. [Source]

Human Rights Watch commented similarly on Monday:

While China has participated in the process, it has in all three reviews deliberately excluded broad public consultation in preparing its national report, presented disingenuous information during the dialogue with other countries, and sought to limit the scope of the review.

[…] President Xi Jinping’s campaign against human rights defenders has undermined China’s UPR, Human Rights Watch said. In September 2013, Chinese authorities detained Cao Shunli, an activist, while she was boarding a flight to Geneva. After being held for several months without charge, Cao became gravely ill and died in March 2014. The authorities released her days before her death, seeking to avoid being held responsible. When independent organizations attempted to hold a moment of silence in her memory days later at the Human Rights Council, during the adoption of China’s 2013 UPR outcome report, China quashed the gesture through a procedural move. This incident and the broader crackdown on rights defenders have meant far fewer independent voices from China have submitted reports or tried to travel to Geneva for the UPR.

“Chinese activists have been imprisoned, tortured, and fatally mistreated for the chance to challenge Beijing over its human rights record,” Fisher said. “Governments that don’t seize this opportunity to speak out embolden China, weaken the UN, and demoralize activists struggling across the world to hold Beijing accountable.” [Source]

Read more on Cao’s story via CDT.

Another determined chronicler of China’s rights environment is citizen journalist Huang Qi, who has been detained since December 2016. On Monday, a joint statement from 14 rights groups called for Huang’s release, citing medical concerns and cases like Cao’s:

(黄琦), the founder and director of 64 Tianwang Human Rights Center, is not receiving adequate medical care in detention and his health has seriously deteriorated, according to his lawyer who visited him on October 23. Huang’s condition is so serious that there is an immediate threat to his life.

The Chinese government must immediately and unconditionally release Huang, who has been detained solely for the peaceful exercise of his right to freedom of expression, and end its policy of denying prompt medical treatment to prisoners of conscience, which is a form of torture. Several human rights defenders and ethnic and religious minorities have died in detention in recent years due to a lack of prompt medical treatment, including Liu Xiaobo, Cao Shunli, Yang Tongyan, and Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, intensifying fears that Huang Qi might suffer the same fate without urgent intervention.

[…] Tomorrow, during China’s 3rd Universal Periodic Review, UN Member States should raise the continued pervasive use of torture and other ill-treatment in China, including tactics like denying medical care for human rights defenders, and make clear calls on the Chinese government to end such practices. [Source]

Activists like Cao Shunli and Huang Qi are not the only ones subjected to arbitrary detention and excluded from “the Chinese people” deemed competent by officials to judge the country’s rights situation. From Fordham Law School’s Caitlin Hickey, Joey Lee, Reece Pelley, and Elisabeth Wickeri in a guest post at China Law & Policy:

[…] Since the UPR process began for all UN Member States in 2008—and arguably in most of China’s UN human rights interactions—certain vulnerable populations have been rendered effectively invisible. Of course, China’s most recent UPR statement proclaims that “it upholds the principle of the people’s primacy” while “promoting the comprehensive development and common prosperity of the people as a whole.” But who exactly is included in China’s definition of “the people”? And who gets left behind on China’s chosen “road” to human rights accountability?

[…] Administrative detention under the [Custody and Education] and [Compulsory Isolated Treatment] systems bear remarkable similarities to the system of [Reeducation Through Labor] that China proudly announced to have abolished in 2013. In all these systems, individuals are exposed to risks of torture and other ill treatment—with documented detainee reports of inadequate healthcare, non-consensual medical testing, forced labor, and physical and mental abuse. Among many other troubling features, C&E centers subject detainees to long hours of forced, uncompensated labor, as well as compulsory and non-consensual physical examinations and medical testing. While in CIT, detainees rarely receive adequate healthcare or treatment and are subjected to forced labor and physical violence perpetrated by supervising employees. Additionally, while being weaned off drugs, CIT detainees are also subject to strenuous physical activity, denied critical medication or pain relief, and rarely offered counseling. Of course, ongoing systems of arbitrary detention are not limited to C&E and CIT. The detention camps in Xinjiang that subject Muslims to political indoctrination and substantial rights abuses bear the hallmarks of arbitrary detention in the context of China’s administrative detention framework. While RTL has been officially abolished, these systems persist, largely because of the invisibility of the populations who are detained within them – sex workers, people who use drug, China’s Muslims. On China’s “road of developing human rights with Chinese characteristics”—“a road that takes the people as the center”—it appears that certain populations just aren’t valued enough to be considered “people.” [Source]

Another less than glowing review of China’s rights progress came last week from Seton Hall University law professor Margaret K. Lewis, who argued in a Washington Post op-ed that China should be urged to remove its 20-year-old signature from the U.N.’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which it has still not ratified.

Prior to its first review before the Human Rights Council in 2009, China reported that the “relevant departments are carrying out necessary legislative, judiciary and administrative reforms to create the conditions for the early ratification of ICCPR.” In 2013, China again reported that the “relevant organs of the national government are continuing steadily to pursue administrative and legislative reforms in preparation for ratifying the Convention.” Before its third review this fall, China once again said that the “relevant departments of the government are steadily continuing to advance administrative and judicial reforms in preparation for [ICCPR] ratification.”

[…] It’s not unusual to have a period between signing a treaty and becoming a full party: The United States took nearly 15 years to ratify the ICCPR and has yet to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child. But during this interim period a country must, at a minimum, refrain from acts that would defeat the object and the purpose of the treaty. The Chinese government’s intolerance for civil and political rights guts the protections in the covenant: What we are seeing is retrogression and repression, not progression and protection.

[…] Rather than repeat the standard refrain that China should ratify the treaty, giving Beijing a sharp “sign back on to the ICCPR when you are serious” rebuke would tell it that other countries are not buying explanations that gloss over egregious human rights abuses. [Source]

This year’s UPR brought fresh worries about Chinese efforts to undermine rights work at the U.N. itself. NGOs expressed concern at the removal of at least seven submissions meant for consideration by member states participating in the review out of “respect [for] the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of the State concerned.”

The UPR process, undertaken through the UN Human Rights Council, explicitly welcomes constructive contributions from civil society to address human rights challenges and promote universal human rights norms. All of the undersigned groups submitted reports through the OHCHR’s online platform before the deadline of March 29, 2018 as individual organizations or as joint submissions to be considered by states in the preparation of their recommendations, and by the OHCHR in its official summary of information from civil society.

We are, however, dismayed by the fact that at least seven submissions were completely removed from consideration from the final document intended for UN member states to draft recommendations for China’s review.

[…] The OHCHR did, however belatedly, issue a Corrigendum document on November 2, including previously removed citations of reports by TCHRD, UHRP, WUC and a joint submission by UNPO and SMHRIC, we remain deeply concerned about the exclusion of stakeholder information in the first place. Furthermore, an individual submission from as well as a joint submission focusing on Tibet continue to be left out of all OHCHR documentation for the review. Since the statements and recommendations of delegations participating in the review are drafted weeks in advance, withholding NGO inputs until less than two working days before the review, effectively precludes these inputs from being considered by participating States.

[…] While we recognise the indispensable work performed by the OHCHR around the world working on critical issues and facilitating participation and inputs from various groups, we remain very concerned that the removal of these reports gives further credence to well-documented NGO concerns of China’s growing influence within the UN human rights system, and the deliberate silencing of critical voices. [Source]

From Kris Cheng at Hong Kong Free Press:

Joshua Wong, secretary-general of Demosisto, said he understood that Beijing has been pressuring delegates from other countries not to meet with Hong Kong pro-democracy activists who visited Geneva.

“There is clearly political pressure from Beijing,” he told reporters on Tuesday. “This is political censorship.”

Demosisto’s submission mentioned political incidents in Hong Kong including the disqualification of lawmakers, the jailing of activists and the disappearance of booksellers, among other issues. Wong said the submission did not mention any issues relating to China’s sovereignty. [Source]

Concerns about “infection” of the U.N. rights system were extensively documented last year in a report from Human Rights Watch. In June, Sinopsis and Jichang Lulu issued a report warning of a prospective “United Nations with Chinese Characteristics.” In September, Brookings’ Ted Piccone published another on “China’s long game on human rights at the United Nations,” alongside an essay distilling its key points:

For decades, China’s Communist Party largely kept clear of muscling its way on to the global human rights stage, preferring to bide its time while it contended with massive economic and social challenges at home. This began to change in the wake of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 when China faced unprecedented criticism of its brutal repression of unarmed citizens demanding more freedoms. Beijing fought hard to defend its one-party system and joined hands with like-minded autocratic states to block external criticism of its hard-line rule. It also engaged in the international human rights system in other ways, including by ratifying a number of relevant treaties and inviting some independent U.N. experts to visit the country and advise officials on compliance with international norms.

More recently, however, especially since the ascension of President Xi Jinping in 2013, China is moving beyond playing defense and adopting a more self-confident posture in the halls of the United Nations. It has begun promoting its model of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” as the preferred path for protecting human rights while chipping away at well-entrenched principles that define the international human rights system. These principles include external monitoring by independent experts of a state’s human rights record, active participation of civil society as both stewards and sirens for human rights, and, when merited, public condemnation of egregious human rights violators. Through soft terms like “win-win cooperation” and building a “community of common destiny”—newly blessed as “Xi Jinping thought” deserving of constitutional standing—China is winning some important battles that will determine the meaning of sovereignty and human rights in the 21st century.

[…] On the human rights front, China’s more confident behavior feels like a direct existential threat because it seeks to subvert the fundamental norms which have shaped global progress toward greater respect for liberal democracy and the rule of law. It is making tangible headway, for example, in Europe, where Hungary and Greece blocked consensus last year on a European Union statement criticizing China’s crackdown on lawyers and journalists. It is making steady progress in isolating democratic Taiwan by offering economic incentives to developing countries like El Salvador, Dominican Republic, and Burkina Faso, which previously did not recognize Beijing. It is partnering with Russia to cut budgetary resources for human rights monitors integral to U.N. peacekeeping missions and to block civil society organizations from participating in U.N. forums. [Source]

The U.S. has helped clear space for this “tangible headway,” Piccone adds, with its withdrawal in June from the U.N. Human Rights Council, which rights groups lamented as a victory for China.