The author delivered the following speech on November 14 at the Geneva Forum 2019 on human rights, organized by the Department of Information & International Relations of the Geneva Office of Tibet of the Central Tibetan Administration under the title China’s High-Tech Repression and Freedom of Religion.
by Hilary L. Miller
Thank you to the Tibet Bureau for inviting me to speak today and for Mr. Frasi for moderating this panel. It’s an honor to be in company with others who have made the promotion and protection of human rights their life’s work.
My name is Hilary Miller and I work for United Nations Watch, a human rights NGO based here in Geneva. We monitor the performance of the United Nations by the yardstick of its own Charter and call out member states that fail to carry out the just application of UN Charter principles. For this reason, UN Watch is particularly concerned with the UN Human Rights Council, which is corrupted by brutal dictators and violators of human rights. Voting members of the Council, which include states such as Venezuela, Cuba and China, abuse their power on the world’s top human rights body to mask their transgressions and evade criticism for their egregious records on human rights while also working in concert to pass resolutions of self-praise.
The matter and the context
China is a member of the 47-nation UN Human Rights Council and plays a negative role for myriad reasons. China has been a member for essentially every year since the Council was established in 2006, having only come off due to term limits. Their prolonged membership is absurd given that China is one of the world’s worst violators of human rights.
A 2019 report from Freedom House rates China as “not free” and underscores how the government has consolidated power by cracking down on journalists, implementing robust internet censorship and surveillance, and repressing religious groups as evidenced by the mass detention of Uighur Muslims in so-called “political reeducation centers” in Xinjiang Province.
With all of this in mind, it is important to ask: why does it matter that China is a member on the world’s highest human rights body? Today, I will discuss the different ways that China negatively influences the UN Human Rights Council. First, China systematically votes the wrong way when it comes to resolutions on human rights. Second, China interrupts guest speakers, as well as intimidates and harasses defenders of human rights during Council sessions. Furthermore, China has a history of pressuring UN officials to do things in contravention of UN ethics procedure. China is also known to contrive fake NGOs that vouch for its human rights record despite the facts on the ground. And finally, China spouts hypocrisy and lies in coordination with other bad actors in an effort to create a false narrative of the reality of its human rights situation.
For over a decade, UN Watch has seen up close how China’s conduct at the United Nations is antithetical to Resolution 60/251 which reaffirms that all States— regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems—have the duty to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms.
China supports counterproductive resolutions
As mentioned before, one way that China negatively affects the UN Human Rights Council is how it systematically votes the wrong way when it comes to resolutions on human rights.
When it comes to positive resolutions that speak out for victims facing some of the most dire human rights abuses, and that call out governments that abuse their human rights, China systematically votes against those resolutions.
For example, in 2018, in a resolution condemning Syria for human rights violations in Eastern Ghouta and denying humanitarian access to the area, China voted no.
In a resolution on Iran that extended the mandate of the Special Rapporteur to investigate human rights abuses in the country, China voted no.
In a resolution on Burundi which condemns government forces for human rights violations, China voted no.
And in a resolution on Myanmar that strongly condemned gross human rights violations against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state and extended the mandate of the Special Rapporteur to investigate the government’s admission to extrajudicial killings, China was one of the only seven countries in the world—together with Venezuela, Iraq, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Burundi, and Cuba—to vote no.
Furthermore, sadly, the Council also often adopts counterproductive resolutions that undermine human rights. China always votes to support those negative resolutions. For example, in 2018 the Council adopted its annual resolution on human rights and unilateral coercive measures. This is a Cuban-initiated UNHRC mandate that defines all U.S. and European sanctions against rogue regimes as violations of human rights.
The Special Rapporteur who implements this mandate, Idriss Jazairy, routinely defends the world’s worst regimes by portraying them as victims of evil western sanctions. For example, in 2016 he issued a report blaming U.S. sanctions on Sudan for damaging the right to life, the right to health, the right to development, the right to drinkable water, the right to work, the right to education, the right of the elderly, the rights of people with disability, women’s rights, the rights of the child, and the right to food. However, he said nothing of the fact that the country was ruled by an oppressive and genocidal dictator, Omar al Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. Likewise in 2017, Jazairy issued a report that made the astounding claim that the Russian government of Vladimir Putin is a victim of human rights violations. He has issued similar reports defending other vicious regimes.
Unsurprisingly, China routinely votes for such politicized mandates, typically created by Cuba, whose only purpose is to undermine universal human rights and strengthen the regimes who are the perpetrators.
So, the way China votes and the resolutions that it supports are important and clear indicators of how China plays a negative role on the Human Rights Council.
China interrupts speakers at Council sessions
Another way that China negatively affects the Council is in its conduct during sessions; the Chinese delegation, without any legitimate basis or cause for obstruction, regularly interrupts speakers who seek to expose China’s human rights abuses. UN Watch has seen this deliberate effort to curb free speech multiple times over the last decade.
In March 2011, UN Watch brought Dr. Yang Jianli—a rights activist, survivor of the Tiananmen Square massacre, president of Initiatives for China, Harvard Fellow, and UN Watch board member—to speak on China’s failure to uphold basic human rights. Moments after he began, the Chinese delegation interrupted Mr. Yang in a point of order to claim that the speaker was not addressing the issue under debate, which was an agenda item specifically designated to discuss “Human Rights Situations that require the council’s attention.”
In another incident in March 2014, UN Watch brought Ti-Anna Wang to testify before the Council on China’s detention of her father Wang Bingzhang, a rights activist and democracy leader who has been serving a life sentence since 2002. Just one minute after Ms. Wang began her speech, China’s delegation objected that she was only permitted to address “abstract situations of human rights” and not specific cases such as her father’s imprisonment.
And, in March 2018, when UN Watch again brought Dr. Yang Jianli to address the 47-nation Human Rights Council on China’s crackdown on the right to freedoms of speech and expression, the Chinese delegation interrupted Yang moments after he began. In a point of order, they falsely claimed that Dr. Yang was not addressing the correct topic, which was universal human rights as enshrined in the 1993 Vienna Declaration, and went further at the end of the speech in a right of reply to say that “NGOs and individuals with ulterior motives use this forum to fulfill their evil purposes.”
In July 2019, UN Watch saw another case of China’s regular pattern of obstructing speakers when they twice interrupted celebrity musician and Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Denise Ho. In both attempts to disrupt her remarks, China’s delegation argued that she was “defaming” China for speaking against its interference in Hong Kong.
These blatant and repeated efforts to interrupt rights activists, whose only motive is to expose the truth, reveals how China abuses its position on the Council to silence critical voices and more generally undermines human rights.
China harasses and intimidates human rights defenders
China not only seeks to stifle dissent by interrupting speakers but also by harassing and intimidating human rights defenders. A 2015 Reuters report put a spotlight on China’s effort to blunt scrutiny of its human rights record with its escalating use of intimidation and spying to silence critics at the UN.
Such was the case when Ti-Anna Wang spoke on behalf of UN Watch in March 2014. A report in the New York Times thoroughly details China’s act of espionage targeting Ms. Wang, which was carried out by a representative of an NGO with close ties to the government. Ms. Wang recalled the incident in the following narrative: “I was sitting at a desk using my computer when, unbeknownst to me, one of the Chinese men used a computer tablet to take unauthorized photographs of me. After a UN Secretariat staff member told him to stop, I turned around a few minutes later to see that he continued to photograph me. He was hiding his tablet inside his suit, but the camera was directly pointing at me. Security eventually escorted the man out of the room, inspected the photographs, and confirmed that there were several photographs of me, my computer screen, and my personal belongings. I obviously felt violated and repulsed”.
In response to this flagrant effort to intimidate and harass Ms. Wang, UN Watch issued a letter to then President Baudelaire Ella of the Human Rights Council urging the HRC Bureau to condemn this “act of deliberate intimidation in reprisal against our delegate for her cooperation with the United Nations human rights mechanisms.”
In another incident last year when Dr. Yang spoke before the Council, a member of China’s delegation was caught taking pictures of him outside the plenary room for more than ten minutes.
China pressures UN Officials to do things against human rights
While China has a clear record of using NGOs and delegates as proxies to intimidate and harass activists, they have also pressured UN officials to violate UN ethics procedure.
Such was the case in May 2017, when the UN human rights office, at China’s request, dangerously handed over the names of four activists slated to attend a Human Rights Council session. UN Watch responded immediately by penning a letter to then High Commissioner Zeid Raad Al Hussein on how the practice of advance disclosure of names only serves to embolden state parties, in particular China, in the effort to harass human rights defenders. Our letter stated the following: “China is particularly known for harassing those who speak out against it at the HRC. Thus, any policy which enables China (or any other State party) to find out which dissidents will be attending an HRC session in advance of the session, enables China’s heavy-handed intimidation tactics. This is contrary to the very purpose of the UN and the HRC, institutions meant to guard human rights and expose, not facilitate, abuses. No political dissidents should be subjected to harassment or intimidation for travelling to Geneva to campaign for human rights at the UN.”
China contrives fake NGOs
In addition to its poor voting record, interrupting speakers, harassing human rights defenders, and pressuring UN officials, China undermines the mission and purpose of the UN Human Rights Council by contriving fake NGOs to vouch for its human rights record.
In the case of Ti-Anna Wang, the man accused of spying on her was a member of the China Association for Preservation and Development of Tibetan Culture, or the CAPDTC, a Beijing-based group set up in 2004 with close links to the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Work Department.
Furthermore, China manufactured a list of fake NGOs to commend its human rights record in wake of the adoption of China’s Universal Periodic Review outcome at the March 2019 Council session. For example, delegates from a group aptly named the “Chinese Association for International Understanding” stated that all people in Xinjiang Province had equal access to the same rights and full development and lauded the government’s positive impact on intercultural centers in the region. Also during the March session, the CAPDTC—the same group that spied on Ms. Wang—falsely claimed that all Tibetans had freedom and that the central Government and the autonomous Government of Tibet had worked together to preserve Tibetan culture. China not only contrives fake groups to manufacture lies and conjure false praise, but also purveys lies itself.
China spouts hypocrisy and big lies
A final way that China negatively influences the Council is in how it deliberately lies in order to manipulate the facts on the ground, especially with regard to the situation of Uighur Muslims. UN Watch saw this in July 2019, just a few months ago, when China penned a letter with 50 co-signatories—including the brutal regimes of Russia, Venezuela, Iran, and Syria among others—to High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet that fabricated its treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang Province. Rather than condemning China for forcibly detaining over one million Uighurs in so-called “vocational education and training centers”, the letter praises China for undertaking a series of counter-terrorism measures in the region and for its “remarkable achievements in the field of human rights” and many “contributions to the international human rights cause.”
And these lies exist beyond formal correspondences between diplomats and delegates. Just a few weeks ago, during the September session of the Human Rights Council, Chinese propaganda littered the halls of the United Nations here in Geneva. Thousands passed through a display that touted China’s fair treatment of Tibetans, Uighurs and 1.3 billon others said to experience the full enjoyment of human rights in China.
To conclude, China’s voting record and malign conduct at the UN shows the degree to which it negatively impacts the Human Rights Council. The fact of its prolonged membership on the 47-nation Human Rights Council—the world’s top human rights body—is absurd, alarming, and needs to be called out.
That is the very mission and purpose of UN Watch; to ensure that bad actors like China do not get a pass when it comes to upholding human rights. In this effort, we speak out against China for all of the many reasons I discussed today when it contravenes Resolution 60/251 and neglects its responsibility to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms.
Thank you for having me speak today on such a critical matter. I appreciate the opportunity and the many take-aways from this panel.