New Delhi: One of the most important bodies of the United Nations (UN), the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), has been sharing with the Chinese government the names of Chinese activists and dissenters who were about to testify against China at the UN, a senior UN staffer and whistleblower has claimed.
As per the UN Charter, UN bodies are forbidden from sharing the names of those who plan to testify about rights abuses to any member state because of the danger they and their loved ones might face in their home country.
Emma Reilly, the whistleblower, spoke to The Sunday Guardian on the “how, why and when” of the developments.
The Sunday Guardian has also accessed verified official communications that prove that top officials of the OHCHR were sharing with Chinese officials at the UN the names of those activists who wanted to testify against China.
In one such communication, Eric Tistounet, the chief of the Human Rights Council branch at OHCHR, on 11 February 2013, while responding to concerns raised by Emma on the issue of sharing the names of the activists with the Chinese, stated that delaying sharing the names with the Chinese officials would lead to an increase in the mistrust with Chinese officials
The communication reads:
I was briefed by Emma on your meeting with the Chinese delegation. As far as I am concerned, the matter is plain. The Chinese delegation will send us the usual note concerning those individuals who have been or will be accredited to the session. To do this, they need to get a confirmation of the presence of one or more of the listed individuals during HRC12. Since the list of participants to a UN public meeting is by definition public, there is not much we can do to resist their inquiry. The best we can do is delay by a few days (until 25 February) the confirmation of those present in March, but this will amount to nothing and will exacerbate the Chinese mistrust against us. We’ll have more leeway at a later stage and we all know that security will eventually authorize the NGOs participants to attend the session. Finally, I would like to add that I would find it appropriate for the NGO concerned to be informed about the Chinese request…. transparency goes both ways.
An email by Yang Chuanhui, Third Secretary (Human Rights), Permanent Mission of China to the UNOG, which she wrote on 1 February 2013 to Lidiya Grigoreva, the liaison officer at OHCHR, accessed by The Sunday Guardian, reads:
This is to ask you about whether any person I listed last time have applied for accreditation to the 22nd session of the Council. I hope you can update me as soon as possible. Thanks!
The names that the Chinese official Yang was referring to were the 13 Chinese activists, who, China believed, were going to testify against them at the UN. Of the 13 names, one was a very prominent religious Buddhist figure.
The Sunday Guardian is revealing the names only of those among the 13 whose names are already in the public domain: Rebiya Kadeer, Dolkun Isa, Asgar Can, Jianli Yang and He Geng.
EMMA REILLY SPEAKS
Here are the edited excerpts of the interview that Emma Reilly gave to The Sunday Guardian:
Q: When did you join the United Nations (UN) and at what position? Are you still a part of the UN?
A: I joined the UN in January 2012, as a Human Rights Officer. I am still employed by the UN, though on Friday (8 January), I was formally placed under investigation specifically for blowing the whistle to member states on the dangerous policy of the UN handing names of human rights activists to China. This is the first step to being fired.
Q: The UN has denied that it had leaked the names of the Chinese dissidents to China, something which you have claimed. What proof can you share to substantiate your allegation? When was the first time that you discovered that the UN was divulging the details of dissidents to China? And what did you do after that?
A: In February 2013, I took over the responsibility for NGO liaison with the Human Rights Council. I was forwarded an email by a colleague in which the Chinese delegation asked to know whether specific, named dissidents were accredited to the Council. I assumed the rules would be applied (as they were for Turkey in the previous session of the Human Rights Council, which meets three times a year), and the request would be refused. My boss suggested it was up for debate. I immediately objected that handing over names would be dangerous. I suggested that we should not hand over names and that we should inform these people (dissenters) China was asking about so they could assess any danger to themselves.
My boss, however, overruled me and decided to hand over names. I immediately reported him all the way up the chain to the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and even the Secretary-General.
I later discovered all those emails debating whether to hand over the names were for my benefit. It had already been happening since 2006. I had actually been copied in one of the emails in 2012, but it was one of thousands titled “NGO accreditation” at a time when I did not work on the issue, so I had filed them as examples for when I did take over that role.
The UN has changed its story a lot—sometimes it admits handing over names, sometimes it denies it. In court, the only forum where the UN could be held responsible for lying, the UN says names are still handed over. The UN refuses to investigate.
Q: In your discovery, how many names of dissidents have been divulged and to whom?
A. I am no longer copied in the emails handing over names, but judging from the standard letters received from the Chinese government afterwards saying specific people who have applied for accreditation should not be allowed to come, over 50 people’s names have been handed over. They include citizens of the US, UK, Turkey, Norway, Sweden, Germany, Canada, Australia, Switzerland, etc. Their families back in China are then intimidated to try to persuade them not to come.
Q: Who were the office/officials who shared the names of the dissidents to China?
A: The names are handed over by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, specifically the Chief of the Human Rights Council Branch, Eric Tistounet.
Q: Do you have any information about what happened to any/some of the dissidents whose names were divulged to China?
A: They were intimidated and these acts of intimidation have included telephone calls from family members asking the dissidents to stop their international advocacy; hacking of NGOs accrediting the dissidents, including posting or emails of false announcements that events were no longer taking place; refusal of entry or removal of dissidents from UN premises at the request of China, against UN rules; arrest, detention and disappearance of family members; torture of family members in front of one another, with those witnessing forced to call the dissident to let them hear the torture; the death in custody of a student whose name was previously handed over, who had returned to China.
Because the activists were not told their names were being given to China by the UN, they often did not know why the intimidation of their families happened at a particular time.
Q: What is the present status of your complaint now?
A: The UN fired the judge who heard my cases in 2019 without notice in order to prevent him from ruling in my favour again. On Friday, 8 January 2021, the UN formally placed me under investigation for blowing the whistle on this dangerous and exceptional practice, which applies only to China.
In its response, the OHCHR, though its spokesperson, Rupert Colville, unequivocally rejected Reilly’s claims:
“This is an issue that has been aired publicly for more than three years now. Ms Reilly’s allegations spring from, but are not confined to, a practice which was discontinued in 2015. We are not aware of any evidence whatsoever that any action by the Human Rights Office in this regard resulted in harm to any participant, even prior to 2015. For the past five years, OHCHR has not confirmed the names of individual activists accredited to attend UN Human Rights Council sessions to any State. Ms Reilly’s repeated claims that the practice continues to this day are false. The Human Rights Council is in any case a public event and the proceedings are webcast live.
We unequivocally reject Ms Reilly’s claims of improper action. To give just one example, one of her recent tweets says ‘@UN has *never* investigated those responsible or stopped handing over names’. Both claims contained in this one short sentence are false. Ms Reilly has engaged litigation in multiple proceedings related to these matters before the independent UN Dispute Tribunal and the UN Appeals Tribunal, a number of which are ongoing. Numerous factual or legal contentions which Ms Reilly continues to advance in the public domain have already been rejected by those Tribunals. Unfortunately, because of those processes that are still ongoing, we are constrained in our ability to respond in further detail to her many allegations. It should also be noted that Ms Reilly continues to be employed by OHCHR (and has been throughout), on a standard staff contract with work assignment on full pay.”
Responding to the query if the practice of sharing names of activists and dissenters with the country concerned is true, that if it was a general practice or was done only in the case of China, the spokesperson said, “China was not the only member state that requested such information up until 2015, when the practice ceased altogether, the names of some participants were confirmed to the small number of member states who requested confirmation, but only when their identities were first provided by the member state in question. No names were given by the Secretariat on its own initiative. In addition, when names were confirmed by the Human Rights Council Secretariat prior to 2015, best efforts were taken to ensure that such confirmation, when it occurred, did not add any extra risk to that already being faced by advocates critical of States. In addition, when doing so, certain protective steps were also undertaken to ensure the safety and security of participants. It is important to remember that the Human Rights Council is a public event, and all those taking part (diplomats, NGO activists, journalists etc) are all sharing the same physical space. This is not an event you attend if you wish to stay hidden.”