Taking it one step further, China spoke on behalf of Russia, Belarus, North Korea, Venezuela, Iran, Syria, and Sri Lanka, in calling for a ‘thorough and impartial investigation into all cases where crimes were committed against indigenous peoples’ in Canada. In its response, Canadian ambassador Leslie Norton acknowledged that authorities ‘historically denied the rights of Indigenous peoples through assimilationist policies and practices’, and that they ‘still face systemic racism, discrimination, and injustices.’
Two years after a first letter of concern on rights violations in Xinjiang, Canada delivered a joint statement on behalf of a cross-regional group of 45 States in a Human Rights Council dialogue with High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet. The governments voiced grave concerns over a wide range of serious violations and the ‘collective repression’ targeting Uyghurs and members of other ethnic minorities, including those documented in UN experts’ 29 March public statement on Uyghur forced labour, and in a recent letter on the case of Uyghur female ex-detainee Gülbahar Jalilova. They also remain ‘deeply concerned about the deterioration of fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong under the National Security Law and about the human rights situation in Tibet’. The group of countries urges China to:
- Allow immediate, meaningful and unfettered access to Xinjiang for independent observers, including the High Commissioner
- Urgently implement the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination’s eight recommendations related to Xinjiang, including by ending the arbitrary detention of Uyghurs and members of other Muslim minorities
- Abide by its human rights obligations, including in Hong Kong and Tibet
Despite Ukraine’s later withdrawal from the statement over reported threats by Beijing to withhold vaccine delivery, the increasing level of support (44 States) indicates an escalating global concern over the country’s human rights crisis.
In a noteworthy move, Turkey called on China to ensure ‘more transparency on the situation in Xinjiang’ in its national statement, as it ‘join[s] the international call for a meaningful, full-fledged and unrestricted visit’ of the High Commissioner to the region.
Yet, in an attempt to reframe the debate as a geopolitical confrontation against China, Beijing again mobilised its diplomatic allies. Belarus delivered a (second) counter-statement on behalf of 65 countries against ‘interference by external forces’ in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet.
Within the last two years, increasing reports on grave human rights violations in China have emerged from the UN human rights system: innumerous letters and statements by up to 50 UN experts, letters by the UN’s committee on racial discrimination, as well as reviews by the UN committees on women’s rights and on economic, social and cultural rights.
This is not about ‘China vs. the West’, but about the fate of millions of victims, their families, and the brave defenders who strive to end impunity. Yet, seldom have so many UN mechanisms issued such a critical mass of information, with such a disproportionately weak response from the international community.Raphael Viana David, ISHR Programme Officer
Instead of rebuking accusations, Canada showed what a committed government should do: acknowledge the gravity of human rights violations, open itself to international scrutiny and cooperation, and take meaningful steps to address them.Sarah M Brooks, ISHR Programme Director
The High Commissioner’s fundamental – yet elusive – role
In this context of diplomatic tit for tat, High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet should stand on principle, not politics. In her update to the Council, she once more stated she ‘continues to discuss with China modalities for a visit’ and ‘hopes this can be achieved this year, particularly as reports of serious human rights violations continue to emerge.’
In a civil society joint statement delivered on behalf of 25 human rights organisations during a dialogue with her, ISHR reiterated that ‘access is not a prerequisite for effective monitoring, public reporting and accountability.’ Nearly three years since her request for unfettered access to China, the groups urged her to take stock of the little progress achieved, and to ‘urgently strengthen remote monitoring and initiate public reporting’ based on her independent mandate, following her predecessor’s steps on Venezuela (2017) and Kashmir (2018).
How much time will victims still need to wait for before the High Commissioner decides to take things into her own hands? The weight of evidence and the gravity of allegations of crimes against humanity against Uyghurs demands that she commence remote monitoring and public reporting immediately.Raphael Viana David, ISHR Programme Officer
Ongoing crackdown on human rights defenders
As international attention focuses on the fate of Uyghurs, Tibetans and Hong Kongers, the situation for human rights defenders in mainland China remains dire. Already in December 2020, UN experts expressed their ‘shock at the continued crackdown on human rights defenders and lawyers.’
More recently, on 28 April, eight UN experts – led by human rights defenders rapporteur Mary Lawlor – addressed a lengthy letter to the government on violations committed against ‘seventeen human rights defenders sentenced or under investigation or trial’ for national security crimes in connection with their rights defence work.
In the letter, the experts express ‘serious concern about the misuse of criminal legislation to impose lengthy prison sentences’, often more than ten years, and enumerated a series of human rights violations that ‘indicate a matter warranting immediate attention.’ These included:
- Arbitrary detentions, such as of Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti, ‘under national security crimes typified in the Criminal Code, mainly subversion of State power (or inciting subversion) but also espionage, terrorism, separatism, […] picking quarrels and provoking trouble’
- Enforced disappearance under China’s Criminal Procedure Law provision of ‘Residential Surveillance in a Designated Location’, such as of Chang Weiping 常玮平, Ding Jiaxi 丁家喜, or Gao Zhisheng 高智晟 (disappeared since 13 August 2017)
- Torture and ill-treatment, including through prolonged solitary confinement, ‘inadequate access to food and poor prison conditions’
- Lack of ‘access to adequate medical care and treatment’ in particular when health conditions are ‘life-threatening’ such as for citizen journalist Huang Qi 黄琦
- Challenges to due process, including protracted pre-trial detention without judicial review, and lack of access to a lawyer – either under the guide of Covid-19 regulations, or because lawyers have been disbarred
My husband Ding Jiaxi has advocated for Chinese citizens to practice the rights enshrined in international conventions and the Chinese constitution. For this work, he has been harassed, jailed, and tortured. My husband’s situation is typical of what China has been practicing against many human rights defenders, and other populations as well.Sophie Luo 罗胜春, wife of Chinese activist Ding Jiaxi 丁家喜
The experts point to the excessively broad nature of the charges of ‘subversion’ or ‘inciting subversion of State power’ under China Criminal Law’s national security crimes, used to sentence defenders. They detail how those crimes fail to pass the thresholds of legality and proportionality, running therefore against China’s obligations under international human rights law.
As of 27 July, the government’s response dated 26 June is still being translated.
In 2019, the UN’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention had pointed that ‘the presence of multiple cases found in violation of international norms on detention indicates a systemic problem with arbitrary detention’.
States may wish to avoid ‘politicization’ when it comes to China, yet this cannot be a free pass on the most serious human rights violations reported by UN experts, targeting Uyghurs, Tibetans, Hong Kongers, human rights lawyers and defenders.Sarah M Brooks, ISHR Programme Director
- UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to strengthen remote monitoring and initiate public reporting on the human rights situation in China
- All States to collectively express concerns over the grave human rights violations as reported by UN mechanisms and civil society, and urge the High Commissioner to commence public reporting