Call on China to free defenders and #RepealRSDL

ISHR, Safeguard Defenders, The Rights Practice and The 29 Principles are mobilising the international community to put pressure on China to #RepealRSDL and end enforced disappearances against human rights defenders. Join our campaign!

In China, brave activists are trying to improve the daily life of their fellow citizens and defend their rights to speak freely, to be treated on an equal footing with others, to protest peacefully, or to practice a religion. But the Chinese government fears that their actions will challenge its power and that their criticisms will undermine it. Like the Uyghur and Tibetan peoples, many who stand up for human rights are repressed and silenced, and the authorities have found a very effective way to do that: they disappear them.

On 22 October 2020, exactly a year ago, lawyer Chang Weiping was disappeared under ‘Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location’ (or ‘RSDL’) for ‘inciting subversion of State power.’ Lawyer Chang is a promising human rights lawyer, who has bravely defended sensitive cases of victims of sexual harassment during China’s ‘Me Too’. He has also worked with victims of discriminatory practices due to their sexual orientation or HIV status, or targeted for speaking freely or practicing their religion. Ten days before his disappearance, he had published a video denouncing torture he had endured when he was first held under RSDL in January 2020, after attending a meeting with other activists a month earlier. UN experts have publicly called for his release. No one knows where he is held. 

Since 2012, China’s rubber-stamp legislative body passed and amended several articles in its Criminal Procedure Law that give police the power to take people into custody without disclosing where they will be held: this is called ‘Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location’. When this happens, people are denied all contact with the outside world, even with their family or a lawyer, for up to six months. No one knows where they are. They are interrogated and often tortured to extract confessions. Meanwhile, despite the barriers and risks they have to overcome, their families persist in seeking knowledge about their loved one’s fate and justice for what they suffered.

United Nations experts are clear: RSDL is a form of enforced disappearance. With estimations of up to 57.000 individuals under RSDL, enforced disappearances are endemic in China. RSDL tears families apart, and is intended to instill fear into China’s human rights movement.

Many human rights activists have stopped promoting dignity, peace and justice in their communities because they fear to be disappeared by the police. This practice – enforced disappearance – is absolutely wrong and prohibited under international law. Everyone should be able to speak their mind and participate in the life of their communities. 


What do we want? 

We want the Chinese government to repeal RSDL (articles 74 to 79 of China’s Criminal Procedure Law), and to bring truth and justice to victims.

RSDL should be high on the agenda of any human rights exchange with the Chinese government. We want governments worldwide to speak out and use all bilateral and multilateral channels to press the Chinese government to #RepealRSDL. We want the UN to amplify its monitoring of RSDL in China, and to sustain its pressure on the authorities to respect international law and to #RepealRSDL.

Feeling supported is vital for disappeared defenders and their relatives. We want the media, human rights groups and activists across the world to pay closer attention to RSDL, to raise awareness around them, and to stand in solidarity with disappeared Chinese human rights defenders and their relatives.


How do we achieve this? 

We are working hard to: 

  • Increase the awareness and legal understanding of government officials and diplomats, UN experts, journalists, and human rights groups, about RSDL as a form of enforced disappearance, forbidden under international law. We have created a short document that explains clearly what UN experts have said about RSDL, and are spreading the word online and offline.
  • Mobilise diplomatic missions, through meetings and letters, and encourage them to speak out on RSDL at the UN and in other spaces; 
  • Push UN experts to take up individual cases and pay a closer look at the use and impact of RSDL in light of China’s obligations under international human rights law ;
  • Encourage governments, activists, and concerned individuals to stand in solidarity with disappeared human rights defenders and their relatives


What can you do? 

Stand in solidarity! Feeling supported is vital for disappeared defenders and their relatives. Send a solidarity message with Chen Zijuan, lawyer Chang’s wife: write a postcard, and share it with her on your social media by clicking on the image below. Don’t hesitate to personalise it before tweeting. Alternatively you can copy paste this link in your browser:

You can also raise awareness! Check out the informational and communication material in our ‘Campaign Toolbox’, and share it with your country’s ministry of foreign affairs, a journalist you know, your friends or your social media followers – and remember to tag @ISHRglobal, and #StandWithDefenders #RepealRSDL.

Who are the defenders we are campaigning for? Meet Chang Weiping!

Who are the defenders we are campaigning for? Meet Chang Weiping!

Chang Weiping is a human rights lawyer who defends the exercise of free speech and religious freedom, as well as the rights of people facing discrimination because of their health status, sex, gender identity and sexual orientation, by providing them with pro bono counsel. He has also helped other activists facing judicial harassment for the legitimate exercise of their human rights. On January 12, 2020, he was placed under RSDL by police from Baoji City for 'endangering national security', after attending an informal gathering of human rights lawyers and citizens in Xiamen a month earlier. He was released ten days later on 'bail pending trial.' In October 2020, after months of constant police intimidation and restricted movement, he denounced the torture he had been subjected to under RSDL in a video posted on YouTube. In late 2020, judicial authorities in Baoji City suspended his lawyer's license. He was disappeared under RSDL on 22 October 2020.

Send a solidarity message to his wife Chen Zijuan!

RSD... what?

All you need to know about 'Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location' (or RSDL).

In 2012 China amended its Criminal Procedure Law, including a new provision in Article 73 that allowed for a practice called ‘Residential surveillance at a designated location’ (known in short as RSDL).

This provision authorised holding someone in custody – prior to arrest – for up to 6 months in any location or building chosen by the police, without a need to disclose such location, and with very limited due process and possibilities for judicial review.

For many lawyers, this provision only legalised an existing practice of police interrogation in ‘illegal’ locations (hotels, restaurants, disaffected buildings, etc): by giving it a semblance of legality, any information obtained in such locations could now be used in court. However, putting it into Chinese national law doesn’t mean it is lawful under international law!

According to international human rights standards, as repeatedly stated by UN independent experts: placing individuals under incommunicado detention + for investigation + for prolonged periods + without disclosing their whereabouts = secret detention  = a form of enforced disappearance. 

In a nutshell: RSDL is a form of enforced disappearance. And according to all sources of international law, enforced disappearance is a human rights violation prohibited under all circumstances

In August 2018, a group of 10 UN human rights experts wrote a long letter to the Chinese government inquiring about the legal provisions allowing for RSDL. They had received information that China’s legislative body, the National People’s Congress, would be revising again the Criminal Procedure Law, and that civil society groups and Chinese lawyers had great concerns with Article 73 allowing for RSDL. The experts studied the law as a whole – in particular Article 73 – and explained the ways in which it did not meet international standards, including the human rights treaties that China had itself ratified.

Based on the information they had received, their knowledge of the situation in China, and their expertise in international human rights standards, the UN experts made a series of clear conclusions about RSDL, both in its legal definition, and actual use. They assert that RSDL: 

  • Denies [those held in RSDL] the fundamental right to fair trial, potentially undermines the right to physical and mental integrity, and denies persons held under these conditions of their rights to counsel and family visits
  • Gives the police and public security too much power, that is abused in order to allow arbitrary arrest
  • Is being used to muzzle peaceful and legitimate rights to freedom of expression, assembly, association and the right to defend rights

In a nutshell: by enacting and making use of RSDL, China is failing to meet its binding international law obligations.

In a March 2020 public statement, a group of experts including the UN’s Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances ‘expressed their alarm at the ongoing use of RSDL in China, despite having for many years reiterated the position that RSDL is not compatible with international human rights law. As a form of enforced disappearance, RSDL allows authorities to circumvent ordinary processes provided for by the criminal law, and detain individuals in an undisclosed location for up to six months, without trial or access to a lawyer. This puts individuals at heightened risk of torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

According to Safeguards Defenders:

  • Up to 57.000 persons have been placed in RSDL between 2013 and 2020
  • There’s been a strong increase in the use of RSDL since 2016, peaking in 2020 with a 136% increase compared to 2019. 
  • While not all these individuals are human rights defenders, this is commonly recognised as a tactic used to intimidate and coerce individuals detained for their human rights-related work. 
  • 57k

    persons (estimated) placed in RSDL between 2013 and 2020.

  • 6

    months: the maximum (and often average) amount of time police can hold someone under RSDL.

  • 2

    governments recommended that China repeal RSDL, during China's UPR human rights review at the UN in 2018: Germany and Switzerland.

Campaign Toolkit

Campaign Toolkit

Download our Campaign Toolkit to understand at a glance why RSDL is a serious human rights violation, and to help us raise awareness about this important issue around you (a friend, a journalist you know, your social media followers).

Download the toolkit!

Campaign Resources

Want to know more about RSDL, enforced disappearances and international human rights standards? Check out our additional resources!

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Safeguard Defenders

Safeguard Defenders (SD) is a human rights NGO founded in 2016. It undertakes and supports local field activities that contribute to the protection of basic rights, promote the rule of law and enhance the ability of local civil society and human rights defenders in some of the most hostile environments in Asia. Safeguard Defenders also works to counter attempts by China to undermine international rule of law and the law-based order.
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Safeguard Defenders

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The Rights Practice

The Rights Practice is a charity based in London. We aim to support those working for human rights in Asia, and especially in China. Our work focuses on issues including fair trial rights, deprivation of liberty and the death penalty.
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The Rights Practice

The 29 Principles

The 29 Principles (which is literally based on the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers) is a recently established organisation in the UK which aims to provide support to human rights lawyers through international advocacy and other efforts. The initial focus is on lawyers in China. We are inviting lawyers in the UK and Europe to join us to support our cause.

The 29 Principles

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International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)

The International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) is an international NGO based in Geneva and New York, dedicated to promoting and protecting human rights. We achieve this by supporting human rights defenders, strengthening human rights systems, and leading and participating in coalitions for human rights change.
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International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)