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5 January 2021

China returns to the Human Rights Council after a year of relentless crackdown

This month marks the start of the Chinese government’s fifth term as a member of the UN Human Rights Council. Front Line Defenders urges all UN Member States, including Council members, to take strong and urgent actions to hold the Chinese government accountable for the gross, systematic, and widespread human rights violations in the country, especially in light of the rolling crackdown on human rights defenders that took place throughout 2020 and that shows no signs of abating.

In 2020, the Chinese authorities arbitrarily detained, disappeared, prosecuted, convicted, and upheld unjust sentences against a number of human rights defenders. They put pressure on human rights lawyers for taking up “sensitive” cases involving other human rights defenders and dissidents, and have taken actions to strip these lawyers of their license for defying government pressure. Family members and partners of detained human rights defenders have also been subject to police interrogations, surveillance, harassment, disappearance or house arrest. These actions are marked by deeply flawed, arbitrary, and unfair legal and administrative procedures, as well as extralegal steps, that contravene both domestic laws and China’s international human rights obligations.

Human rights defenders such as A-nya Sengdra (阿亚桑扎), Ge Jueping (戈觉平), Ge Zhihui (葛志慧), Lin Lanying (林兰英), Lin Yingqiang (林应强), Liu Jinxing (刘进兴), Tang Zhaoxing (唐兆星), Liu Yanli (刘艳丽), Yu Wensheng (余文生), Zhang Zhan (张展), as well as Agnes Chow (周庭), Ivan Lam (林朗彦), and Joshua Wong (黃之鋒) in Hong Kong, were convicted and sentenced to prison terms in 2020. Most of the defenders convicted in the mainland have been kept under prolonged pre-trial detention, often without access to their family and legal counsel of their choice.

The rejection of Ge Jueping’s appeal, the trial of Ge Zhihui and Zhang Zhan, the confirmation of a 20-year sentence handed down in 2019 to Dr Gulshan Abbas, sister of US-based Uyghur woman human rights defender Rushan Abbas, and the sentencing of Liu Jinxing and Zhang Zhan all took place in the second half December 2020.

Human rights defenders such as Cai Wei (蔡伟), Chang Weiping (常玮平), Chen Mei (陈玫), Ou Biaofeng (欧彪峰), Wang Zang (王藏), Xie Fengxia (谢丰夏), and Xu Zhiyong (许志永) were all detained in 2020 and are currently in different stages of pre-trial detention. Lawyers Ding Jiaxi (丁家喜), Li Yuhan (李昱函) and Qin Yongpei (覃永沛), as well as health rights defenders Cheng Yuan (程渊), Liu Dazhi (刘大志), and Wu Gejianxiong (吴葛健雄) were arrested prior to 2020, but remain in detention pending trial or a verdict following trial as of today.

Human rights lawyers continue to be at risk of losing their license for defending other defenders and victims of human rights violations. Woman human right lawyer Wang Yu received a notice from the Beijing Judicial Bureau in December 2020 informing her that her license has been revoked because she has not been employed by a registered law firm for over six months. In the first week of January 2021, human rights lawyers Lu Siwei (卢思位) and Ren Quanniu (任全牛) both received a notice from the judicial bureau of their respective provinces informing them of the government’s decision to suspend their license. The notices cited Lu Siwei’s online writings and statements that Ren Quanniu made in a previous trial in 2018 as basis for their punishment.

Ren Quanniu most recently represented citizen journalist Zhang Zhan who was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment on 28 December 2020 for independent reporting of the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan in early 2020. Lu Siwei has represented various detained human rights defenders, including those named in this statement, such as Qin Yongpei, Wang Zang, Yu Wensheng, and one of the 12 Hong Kong youth activists who were intercepted by Chinese authorities last summer while fleeing to Taiwan by boat and who were tried and sentenced on 28 December 2020 by a court in southern China.

The unilateral imposition of a draconian “national security law” on Hong Kong on 30 June 2020 was followed by a series of escalating government actions, including police harassment of media outlets and journalists; arbitrary disqualifications of elected pro-democracy lawmakers; covert and overt threats and smear campaigns against dissidents by government officials and pro-government media; arrests, denial of bail to, charging or sentencing of, and seizure of travel documents from political activists and human rights defenders; mainland officials and State media’s criticisms of rulings by Hong Kong judges in favour of protesters and activists; and the freezing of activists’ bank accounts at the behest of the police. These actions have cast a chilling effect on Hong Kong’s civil society.

As a member of the Human Rights Council, the Chinese government is expected to uphold the highest standards for the respect and protection of human rights. China has also accepted UN Member States’ recommendations at the Universal Periodic Review to respect and protect the fundamental freedoms of human rights defenders, journalists and civil society actors. However, the grim reality on the ground, exemplified by the relentless crackdown on human rights activism in 2020, demonstrates that the Chinese government is either unwilling or unable to fulfill its international human rights obligations and commitments.

Front Line Defenders views Human Rights Council membership not as a reward for abusive behaviour, but as a strong reason and an opportunity for concerned governments to further strengthen their critical, principled engagement with China with a view to intensify scrutiny of the human rights violations that have occurred and continue to occur on a systemic scale across the country, some of which may amount to serious crimes under international law such as crimes against humanity.

Front Line Defenders reiterates its recommendations to the Chinese government to: immediately and unconditionally release all human rights defenders detained, imprisoned or subject to other forms of arbitrary detention solely for their human rights activities; cease and refrain from other forms of harassment against human rights defenders and their family members, including surveillance, interrogations, and revocation of lawyer’s license; and provide reparations to defenders who have been subjected to reprisals, including compensation to them for time spent under arbitrary detention and restoration of lawyer’s license.

Front Line Defenders also reiterates its recommendations to the international community to urgently convene a Special Session of the Human Rights Council to evaluate the range of violations by the Chinese government, including violations against human rights defenders, and establish and adequately resource an impartial and independent UN mechanism to closely monitor, analyse, and report annually on the situation of human rights in China.