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Attendees at the Human Rights Council session stand to commemorate Cao Shunli, a Chinese human rights activist who was prevented from traveling to the Council and died in detention.[/caption]On March 19, 2014 I travelled to Geneva to represent the International Campaign for Tibet at the adoption of China’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) report by the UN Human Rights Council (HRC). This was a culmination of more than a year’s long work for ICT and I was glad that I was going to be at the Council. Below is my personal experience at the HRC. The views in this blog are my own and do not reflect those of ICT.
On that morning, as soon as I walked into the HRC chamber and sat down on one of the seats reserved for NGOs, a man approached me asking me very directly whether I would give a statement on Tibet later on during the adoption of China’s report. At first, this only surprised me. ICT as a member of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) had planned to issue a joint statement together with FIDH and Human Rights in China (HRiC). FIDH, as an NGO with consultative status, was going to deliver it. However, our joint oral statement was not public yet. Moreover, I had never met this man before.
He must have noticed my surprise because he tried to reassure me by saying that he was “Tibetan” and therefore very interested in my statement. He wished to see the statement beforehand and asked me to send it to him but when he gave me his email address, it was only composed by numbers and did not have a name, or even an organization, in it. Now this made me very suspicious as to whom he was and how he knew I worked on Tibet.
When he gave a statement on behalf of his “NGO”, the China Association for Preservation and Development of Tibetan Culture (CAPDTC), during a Council debate on minority issues, I knew he was not presenting the real picture in Tibet but the government’s version.He stressed that the Chinese government was safeguarding the rights of the Tibetan people, especially those concerning language and bilingual education. However I know from ICT’s reports that this is not the case in Tibet.
This was only the beginning of the many intimidation measures I would witness at the HRC those days.
Later during the day, when speaking to representatives of other Tibetan NGOs, I was told that they had been photographed by some Chinese officials while they were sitting in the UN Cafeteria.
That afternoon, when the start of China’s adoption approached, NGO seats began to be filled in the Council chamber by many representatives of Chinese NGOs, or rather representatives of the Chinese government.
The adoption started by being delayed. Rumors started circulating about a possible postponement of the adoption to the following day. The Chinese officials were complaining to the President of the HRC about NGOs’ request to hold a minute of silence to honor Ms. Cao Shunli, a Chinese human rights defender who died in detention on March 14. In the meantime, Chinese delegates were filming and taking pictures of NGO representatives in the Council chamber in contravention of the HRC’s rules, which state that only accredited press have permission to do so.
One of China’s targets on that day was Ms. Ti-Anna Wang, the daughter of a well-known Chinese political prisoner. On March 18, she had given testimony on her father’s situation in detention. A Chinese representative openly photographed her in the Chamber. On March 19, when she was sitting right next to me a Chinese official leaned over and took a photo of the screen of her laptop. After reporting these actions to the UN security guards, the devices were confiscated and the violator escorted outside the room. As reported some days later by the New York Times, the UN decided to disbar this man from its premises
In the end, the adoption of the report was postponed to the next day.
On March 20, the atmosphere in the HRC chamber was very heavy. The feeling I had was that everyone knew that something would happen but no one wanted to mention it. Again, Chinese representatives were everywhere, especially near NGOs. During those two days, other UPR reports were adopted, such as the ones of Saudi Arabia, Chad and the Central African Republic, notably not human rights champions. However, what happened with China was incomparable to any other State.
The first speaker on the NGO list was the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR). NGOs had planned a joint action, which ISHR was leading. It involved standing up while holding posters of Ms. Cao Shunli as soon as the first NGO would start speaking and mentioning a minute of silence to remember Ms. Cao’s death. Personally, this was an incredible experience. Cao Shunli was planning to attend a human rights training and China’s UPR session in October 2013 but she was detained before catching her flight to Geneva. Six months later she was dead, simply for doing what I was doing - attending a UN session. It was beautiful and touching to see so many inspiring people united and protesting peacefully against injustice. China’s complaints as well as those from its authoritarian friends, such as Iran, Cuba, Pakistan and others, were all in vain. Civil society went on with its silent protest until the end of the Council’s debate of China’s UPR.
As FIDH delivered its oral statement
, the Chinese delegation interrupted the speaker by raising a point of order. The Chinese asked the President of the Council “to abolish the status of the speaker [FIDH] to speak”
because the other two organizations did not have consultative status. The UN secretariat ruled against the Chinese, citing a long practice where accredited NGOs could “mention other entities.”
FIDH was allowed to continue with the statement.
This is what China is mostly afraid of. It is aware of the power of the people. This is why it wants to silence them with all means.
Oddly, I don’t think this was a bad experience for the civil society movement. On the contrary, I think it only shows the strength of our movement, the movement of thoughtful, committed citizens, who believe that there is ONE people with the same rights all over the world, be it the Tibetans, the Chinese or the Syrians. It shows that with a common, unified approach and with commitment to the fundamental values of freedom and democracy, this movement one day will win its battle. It may not be tomorrow but it is only a matter of time. On a personal level, it has reinforced my own convictions that what we are doing is right.
Moreover, this has also been a victory for ICT. The unacceptable behavior of Chinese representatives has once again proved to the whole world what the true face of an authoritarian State looks like, despite the friendly smiles and handshakes. Their measures are not only counter-productive, as they showed Chinese opposition to fundamental freedoms and drew more attention to the Tibetan cause, but mainly because they proved that China has no moral legitimacy in an important forum such as the HRC and, most importantly is a threat to democracy and freedom everywhere, not only within its own borders.
Democratic countries have nothing to share with a dictatorship. Now it’s the international community’s time to act.