The United Nations should allow an independent probe into whether its human rights body is providing China with the names of dissidents, including Uyghurs in exile, who testify about rights violations in the country, putting them and their families at risk of reprisal, according to a former agency official.
Emma Reilly, a human rights lawyer and contract staffer with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) U.N. Human Rights Office, said her branch has been providing China with information about dissidents who plan to testify at the U.N. for at least 14 years, despite claims by a spokesperson that the practice had ended in 2015.
“For every human rights meeting, so every U.N. human rights mechanism, in order to interact with them, you have to send a request to be accredited by an NGO that's recognized by the U.N.,” she told RFA’s Uyghur Service in a recent interview.
“The U.N. gets those accreditation requests and those are kept confidential. Member states aren't told who’s coming, except for one exception, and that's for China.”
According to the U.N. Charter, U.N. bodies are forbidden from handing over the names of those who plan to testify about rights abuses to any member state because of the danger it places them and their loved ones in, should a member state try to prevent them from giving a statement.
This is especially true for dissidents from northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), where authorities are believed to have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in a vast network of internment camps since early 2017.
But Reilly said that while the rules are supposed to apply to every U.N. member state equally, “when it came to China, my boss decided that there would be an exception.”
She said that Eric Tistounet, the chief of the Human Rights Council branch at OHCHR, made the decision “in his own capacity” to hand over the information in March 2013.
When Reilly reported the act up the chain of command, she said she was told to “trust my boss’s political judgment.” But she contends that the issue isn’t a political one and instead has legal implications.
“There are rules. We should apply those rules to every member state,” she said.
According to Reilly, her office did not stop providing names to the Chinese mission. She also alleged that it had been happening since at least 2006.
“In previous sessions of the Human Rights Council, I had been told by people that their family members had been calling them in advance, telling them to stop their advocacy, telling them not to go to the Council, that they’d had people turning up in their family homes saying not to go,” she said.
“I had been confused as to how China had that information and how they knew who was coming. But I assumed at that time that it must have been that China was getting it from some other source. It didn't occur to me that the U.N. was providing this to China.”
Reilly, who remains on contract at the UN agency, said that while she reported Tistounet’s handing over of dissident’s names to member states in 2013, it wasn’t until 2017 that she came out publicly about the practice.
“When I first was reporting this publicly, [the OHCHR] put out a press release saying it was perfectly normal,” she said.
“So, in 2017, they admitted that it was still ongoing. And then in 2020 … they claimed that it stopped in 2015. So why did you put out a press release in 2017, saying it's still happening?”
In the Feb. 2, 2017 press release, OHCHR said that it rejected “the totally unsupported allegation … that it endangered four Chinese human rights defenders who attended the Human Rights Council in Geneva in March 2013.”
“Nearer to the start of the sessions, the [U.N. Human Rights] Office frequently receives an official letter, a note verbale, from the Government of China alleging that the NGO in question is a terrorist organization, and listing specific allegations against the individual delegates it knows are coming and requesting they be denied accreditation,” the statement said.
“Upon U.N. Security’s decision that there is no evidence to back up the allegations, the individuals are given the all-clear to enter the U.N. premises and attend the events they wish to attend. The individuals in question have never been denied entry by the UN on the basis of such allegations.”
OHCHR said the U.N. also warns concerned individuals that allegations have been made against them and provides “additional vigilance” to ensure they do not come to harm while on U.N. premises.
The statement also referred to Reilly’s allegations against her managers, which it said “have been taken seriously, leading to two separate independent investigations,” both of which found her claims to be “unsubstantiated.”
But Reilly told RFA that she has since written to governments—including those of the U.S., U.K., Sweden, Norway, Canada, Australia, and Germany—whose citizens or residents are on the lists provided to the Chinese delegation, calling on them to demand an independent investigation into her claims.
“People need to know: is this still happening? If they want to engage with the UN, they need to know realistically which ways they can go about doing that without endangering themselves and without injuring their families,” she said.
“The response has been, from some of the governments that have responded to me, that they have gone to the U.N. and asked about it, and they’ve been assured that it stopped. But the U.N. has lied repeatedly throughout this.”
When asked whether the U.N. is still providing the lists, Reilly responded, “all of the evidence points to that.”
U.S. Representative Michael McCaul told the conservative outlet Free Beacon earlier this week that he is investigating the allegations in his role as the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s lead Republican.
Reilly said she met with U.N. Secretary General António Guterres in February this year to discuss the issue with him and request an independent inquiry.
“His only response was that resolving this would be difficult,” she said.
“It's unusual in that most U.N. agencies are pretty independent. But the High Commissioner [for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet] reports directly to the Secretary General, he could stop this … and he has refused so far to do that.”
RFA requested comment on Reilly’s claims from the OHCHR and received an emailed statement from a U.N. official, who acknowledged via email that the names of Human Rights Council participants “were occasionally confirmed to States in limited circumstances, with care taken to ensure that no action taken by OHCHR would endanger human rights activists.”
“We are not aware of any evidence whatsoever that any action by the Office in this regard resulted in harm to any participant.”
But the official said OHCHR had stopped doing so in 2015.
“For the past five years, OHCHR has not confirmed the names of any individual activists accredited to attend U.N. Human Rights Council sessions to any State,” they said. “Ms. Reilly’s repeated claims the practice continues to this day are false.”
The official noted that Reilly has engaged in litigation related to her claims through the independent U.N. Dispute Tribunal and the U.N. Appeals Tribunal, some of which are ongoing.
“Numerous factual or legal contentions which Ms. Reilly continues to advance in the public domain have been rejected by final decisions and orders already rendered by those Tribunals,” they said.
“We unequivocally reject Ms. Reilly’s claims of improper action.”
RFA was unable to independently verify Reilly’s claims, but a series of incidents appear to suggest that the U.N. has bowed to Chinese pressure over testimony from participants in the past.
In April 2017, Dolkun Isa, a founder of the exile World Uyghur Congress (WUC) and member of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO), was forced from U.N. premises in New York by security guards without explanation.
Two days later, he was denied a new badge to be able to re-enter the forum, to which he had duly registered, prompting a coalition of human rights groups and organizations representing minority peoples around the world to condemn his expulsion and call the move an expression of “domination” by an unnamed U.N. member state.
In May 2018, China’s permanent mission to the U.N. urged the Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations under the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) to remove consultative status for Germany-based Society for Threatened Peoples (STP), after the group named Isa as its representative during the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) a month earlier.
The Chinese delegation claimed that Isa—a German citizen of Uyghur ethnicity—had been “participating, inciting and funding separatism and terrorism for years,” adding that while participating in regional dialogues at UNPFII he had indicated that he was “representing WUC instead of STP,” despite only having accreditation as an STP representative.
Reilly also provided RFA with what she said was a March 2013 note verbale from China’s mission to the U.N. requesting that the OHCHR refuse Isa accreditation for any activity at the Human Rights Council, citing his ties to a “terrorist organization.”
Last month, China narrowly won a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council, prompting New York-based Human Rights Watch to call the vote “embarrassing” for a country that has worked overtime to whitewash its image and used its growing power to stifle criticism of its persecution of ethnic Uyghurs.
Earlier, the U.K. and Germany led a group of 39 member states at the U.N. General Assembly in condemning China’s policies in the XUAR, marking a significant increase in the number of countries willing to stand up to Beijing’s threats of cutting off trade with nations that support such statements. A similar resolution last year received only 23 backers.
Reported by Alim Seytoff and Jilil Kashgary for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.