Accountability can wait no longer: With delayed report and promised visit, High Commissioner at the crossroads on China
As UN experts and governments reiterate concerns at widespread human rights violations across China, UN High Commissioner announces in principle agreement to visit the country, while failing to release long-awaited report on serious violations, some amounting to crimes against humanity, in Xinjiang, the Uyghur region.
States, UN experts and NGOs call attention to gross and systematic human rights violations in China
In addition to significant attention to Russia’s war in Ukraine, the 49th session of the Human Rights Council kicked off with grave concerns raised over the human rights crisis in China. High-level dignitaries from France, New Zealand and the United States urged UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet to release her Office’s report on Xinjiang, the Uyghur region. They were joined by the Turkish and Danish Foreign Ministers in calling for the UN’s unhindered access to the country.
Seven delegations – Finland, Czechia, the United Kingdom, Japan, Australia, Luxemburg, and Iceland – expressed further concerns at rampant violations in Tibet and Hong Kong, and the crackdown against civil society across the country. In contrast, China’s human rights situation was praised by a number of Beijing’s old and new allies, namely North Korea, Sri Lanka, Laos, Armenia, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, the Maldives, South Sudan, Lesotho, Venezuela, and the Dominican Republic.
In her report to the Human Rights Council on secret detention in the context of countering terrorism, UN Special Rapporteur Fionnuala Ní Aoláin underscored the ‘pressing need for independent human rights assessment and accountability for violations of international law’ in the context of mass arbitrary and secret detention in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).
When State practices give rise to the concern that systematic and grave violations of international law may be occurring, particularly where they may reach the threshold of crimes against humanity, it is imperative that free and unhindered access, meaningful fact-finding missions and close scrutiny are guaranteed.
Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism
The Special Rapporteur reiterated ‘ongoing concerns about the conditions in such facilities including the practice of ‘re-education’ which impinges on the most fundamental rights including deprivation of liberty, the integrity of family life including forced separation, freedom of expression, freedom of association, right to hold and practice religious belief, cultural rights and fundamental economic and social rights.’
Ní Aoláin made clear ‘the assertion that mass detention and incommunicado detention is justified by ‘re-education’ to prevent extremism is inconsistent with the governments’ international law obligations.’
In a dialogue with High Commissioner Bachelet at the Human Rights Council, the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) called attention to China’s abuse of ‘national security’ in law and discourse to justify far-reaching violations – from the mass detention and persecution of Uyghurs and Tibetans, to the arbitrary targeting of human rights defenders in mainland China and Hong Kong. ISHR urged Bachelet to strengthen her Office’s monitoring of enforced disappearance in China, paying particular attention to ‘Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location’ (RSDL).
Victims and rights groups await UN report on Uyghur region
In an open letter made public on 8 March, ISHR joined nearly 200 human rights groups in urging High Commissioner Bachelet to promptly release her Office’s report on serious human rights violations in Xinjiang, the Uyghur region, promised since September 2021.
Bachelet first indicated her intent to report on Chinese government abuses across the Uyghur region by requesting unhindered access to the country in her first update to the Human Rights Council in September 2018. Since that time, she has refrained from publicly expressing strong concerns about China’s national situation – in contrast with the coverage of a number of other country situations since she took office.
The High Commissioner’s relative silence over worsening rights violations against human rights defenders, Uyghurs, Tibetans, and the people of Hong Kong is deeply regrettable. Negotiations for what the Chinese call a ‘friendly’ visit must not be allowed to trump reporting on and accountability for gross and systematic violations, some amounting to crimes against humanity.
Phil Lynch, Director, ISHR
In September 2021, ‘regret[ting] not be[ing] able to report progress’ on that front, Bachelet confirmed that her Office was ‘finalising its assessment of the available information on allegations of serious human rights violations in [Xinjiang], with a view to making it public.’ In December, a spokesperson for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) stated the report would be released ‘in a matter of few weeks.’
Human rights groups and a number of governments have since repeatedly urged Bachelet to release the report. Reliable diplomatic sources close to the OHCHR have indicated the report has been finalised since September 2021.
The UN’s Xinjiang report is crucial to ensure that the situation can be discussed and dealt with on the primary basis of human rights rather than political concerns. The High Commissioner, and the UN itself, must take a principled approach and demonstrate a willingness and ability to confront a major power’s human rights crisis.
Phil Lynch, Director, ISHR
In her address to the Human Rights Council on 8 March, the High Commissioner indicated she had agreed on a visit with China, ‘foreseen to take place in May’. Yet, she failed to provide any update on the release of her Office’s report.
In contrast, nongovernmental organisations, Special Procedures and Treaty Bodies have gathered over the years a diverse and extensive body of information detailing grave human rights violations that could amount to crimes against humanity, or even genocide. In June 2020, over 50 Special Procedures experts called for ‘decisive measures to protect fundamental freedoms in China’, including the establishment by the Human Rights Council of ‘an impartial and independent United Nations mechanisms to closely monitor, analyse and report annually on the human rights situation in China.’ They reiterated grave concern at a range of issues including the ‘collective repression of the population, especially in Xinjiang and Tibet, the detention of lawyers and prosecution and disappearances of human rights defenders across the country.’
Access to China, but at what cost?
Bachelet announced that an ‘advanced OHCHR team’ would depart to China in April to prepare her stay, ‘including onsite visits to Xinjiang and other places.’ She noted that ‘preparations will have to take into account Covid-19 regulations.’ The country, now facing its highest peak of infections ever, has put in place highly restrictive measures under its ‘zero-Covid’ policy, including localised and city-wide lockdowns implemented with little notice, and a 21-day quarantine for international visitors.
It is alarming that, six months after announcing she would soon release her much-awaited report, we still have not seen it. Bachelet’s visit to China – which precedent shows is unlikely to indeed be 'unfettered' – is not an excuse to further delay a first and critical step towards accountability.
Raphael Viana David, Acting Asia Programme Manager, ISHR
Bachelet’s update to the Human Rights Council does not provide any indication as to whether the conditions negotiated with the authorities allow for unhindered access, as she has previously called for.
A number of factors prompt significant concerns about the likelihood that such conditions –the details of which remain undisclosed – are effectively met, despite China’s commitments.
China is, alongside Saudi Arabia, the country most often mentioned in the UN Secretary-General’s annual report on ‘reprisals’ against individuals and groups cooperating, or seeking to cooperate with the UN. In the 2020 report, China was listed among the 11 countries cited for engaging in ‘patterns of reprisals’. It was also identified as one of five countries where ‘serious issues with the detention of victims of reprisals and intimidation’ were documented and reported by the Assistant-Secretary General and focal point on reprisals Ilze Brands Kehris in September 2021.
Following his country visit to China in 2016, then-Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Philip Alston highlighted the ‘misunderstanding between the Government and the Special Rapporteur as to the terms on which Special Procedures missions take place’. He detailed in his report to the Human Rights Council measures that made him ‘unable to meet with the great majority of civil society actors with any degree of freedom or confidentiality’, including that the Government:
views itself as ‘fully responsible for determining every detail of the agenda of the visit’
‘advised him not to make direct contact with civil society organisations to arrange meetings, and requested full details of any private meetings held’
‘warned [him] not to meet with individuals it considered ‘sensitive’, and those individuals were warned not to meet with [him]’
‘regularly followed [him with] security officers posing as private citizens, thus making it virtually impossible to meet privately with civil society organisations and individuals’
Lawyer Jiang Tianyong was detained for nearly three years following his meeting with Special Rapporteur Alston in Beijing in August 2016. Alston denounced harassment against Jiang after he left prison in March 2019 upon completion of his sentence. Today, lawyer Jiang remains illegally held under de facto house arrest, and strict surveillance.
The Chinese government has regularly recalled its position that it would only allow for a ‘friendly visit’ by the High Commissioner aimed at ‘promoting exchanges and cooperation’, and not ‘a so-called ‘investigation’ with presumption of guilt.’
Being restricted in her moves once in China comes at a great political cost, for little benefit for independent investigation and accountability. High Commissioner Bachelet should understand that she will not enjoy civil society support unless certain conditions are met.
Raphael Viana David, Acting Asia Programme Manager, ISHR
On 19 April, ISHR and over 60 human rights groups, including Uyghur, Tibetan, Hong Kong, mainland Chinese, and international organisations, have released a joint statement laying out key expectations and demands ahead of the High Commissioner’s announced visit to China, and over the protracted release of her Office’s report on serious violations in Xinjiang, the Uyghur region.
 These standards draw on, among other resources, the ‘Terms of Reference for Fact-Finding Missions by Special Rapporteurs/Representatives of The Commission on Human Rights’ [E/CN.41998/45 Appendix V].
Raphaël Viana David
Raphaël is ISHR's Asia Programme Officer, and one of the two Focal Points for Latin America in our Geneva office. He joined ISHR in 2018. You can follow him on Twitter at @vdraphael.
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