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At UN, China uses intimidation to silence Tibetan voices

October 12, 2015

Reuters, October 6, 2015 - In a café lounge at the United Nations complex in Geneva, a Tibetan fugitive was waiting his turn earlier this year to tell diplomats his story of being imprisoned and tortured back home in China.

The 43-year-old Buddhist monk, Golog Jigme, had broken out of a Chinese detention centre in 2012, eventually fleeing to Switzerland. But his Chinese government pursuers hadn’t given up.

As Golog Jigme prepared to testify in March before the U.N. Human Rights Council, a senior Chinese diplomat, Zhang Yaojun, was in the crowded café. Zhang stood just a few meters from the table where the bald monk was seated in his saffron robes.

“He just took a photo of me,” Golog Jigme said, gesturing at Zhang, who was standing with his smartphone in his hand. Zhang’s action violated a ban on photography in the halls of the United Nations, except by accredited photographers.

“When I was hiding in the mountains, the Chinese government announced a cash reward of 200,000 yuan (about $31,000) for whoever finds me,” said the monk. “Maybe he wants the cash reward.”

Zhang said later he was simply photographing the scenery and was unaware of the ban.

Golog Jigme’s caustic joke speaks to the disturbing nature of his encounter with Zhang. The surveillance of the monk, Western diplomats and activists say, is part of a campaign of intimidation, obstruction and harassment by China that is aimed at silencing criticism of its human rights record at the United Nations.

Geneva, site of the U.N.’s headquarters for handling rights violations, is a hub of that effort. The primary function of the council, whose rotating members are elected by the U.N. General Assembly, is to review countries’ human rights records.

More broadly, Beijing’s conduct here is an example of China’s growing capacity to stifle opposition in the international arena. The Communist government’s global reach is growing at a time when it is cracking down on domestic dissent and preparing a new, restrictive law on foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operating in China. In July, Chinese authorities targeted human rights lawyers and activists, detaining or questioning 245 of them, according to Amnesty International.

Photographing and filming critics like Golog Jigme is one tactic. Others include pressuring the United Nations to deny accreditation to high-profile activists and filling up meeting halls with Chinese officials and sympathizers to drown out accusations of rights abuses.

 “As long as they feel the political costs of intimidating someone are lower than the benefit of hearing the criticism, the practice will continue.”

Michael Ineichen, rights activist, on China’s conduct at the Human Rights Council.

“We are well aware of these problems, which unfortunately happen repeatedly - and are not confined just to China,” said U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein. He said he was “extremely concerned by the increasing number of cases of harassment or reprisals against those cooperating with the Human Rights Council.”     

Beijing is also barring mainland activists from leaving China and travelling to Geneva, where the rights council last week concluded its third three-week session of the year. Activists who speak out against their country’s rights record in Geneva have to contend with another signature Chinese tactic: coordinated interference by diplomats and delegates from Beijing-backed non-governmental organizations. These astroturf groups are known as GONGOs, or government-organized non-governmental organizations, a play on the acronym NGO.

China has an army of GONGO officials at its disposal in Geneva, especially when its record is under review. According to a U.N. database, it has 47 NGOs from the mainland, Hong Kong and Macau that are allowed to participate in meetings at the Human Rights Council. At least 34 of these are GONGOs, a Reuters calculation shows. These groups are either overseen by government ministries or Communist Party bodies, or have a current or retired party or government official as their head.

“We are well aware of, and disturbed by, the presence of NGOs that are not truly independent – again, from quite a few countries,” said U.N. High Commissioner Zeid. “But the Human Rights Council cannot do anything to prevent them from attending sessions when they enjoy official status.” 

EVADING SCRUTINY

China’s campaign is working, diplomats and activists say. The ruling Communist Party has succeeded in evading censure of its rights record at the U.N. in recent years. NGOs and alleged victims of human rights abuses on the mainland are struggling to make their voices heard.

“As long as they feel the political costs of intimidating someone are lower than the benefit of hearing the criticism, the practice will continue,” said Michael Ineichen, a director at the International Service for Human Rights. The NGO supports human rights defenders. The U.N. and member states, he said, must “increase the political costs so it’s no longer beneficial for China to silence people at the U.N.”

Ren Yisheng, minister counselor in charge of human rights at China’s mission in Geneva, denied his country was engaged in intimidating activists and silencing critics. China is currently one of the 47 rotating members of the council.

Ren said China was the victim of a double standard in Geneva. “I seldom hear the (European Union) criticize the U.S. for ... police brutality, Guantanamo, surveillance, the discrimination against minorities,” he said in an August interview at the Chinese mission. “I seldom hear the U.S. criticize the EU or other developed countries. Whenever they take the floor, they always focus on developing countries, including my country.”

Actually, Beijing is feeling less pressure from Western governments at the U.N. these days. No nation has brought a resolution against China since the Human Rights Council was formed in 2006. In the council’s predecessor body, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, 11 resolutions were brought against China from 1990 to 2005. Beijing blocked them all, except in 1995 when a resolution was brought to a vote but rejected, according to Human Rights Council spokesman Rolando Gomez.

Joachim Ruecker, Germany’s ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, is the current president of the council. He said he’d heard of reports of harassment of activists by China before he became president in January. But since taking up his new post, he said he had not been confronted with any new allegations regarding China.

Asked about the photographing of Golog Jigme, Ruecker said: “This case was not brought to my attention.  If I do receive such complaints, or any other such case which might be perceived as an act of intimidation, I would follow up accordingly.”

DOMESTIC CRACKDOWN

Under President Xi Jinping, China is conducting what activists say is the worst domestic crackdown on human rights in two decades. Close to 1,000 rights activists were detained last year – nearly as many as in the previous two years combined, according to Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a coalition of Chinese and international NGOs.

The number of activists barred by China from going to Geneva is also rising. In 2014, authorities prevented 10 people from travelling to the U.N. by refusing to issue passports, confiscating travel documents or threatening reprisals, according to Thomas Shao, an independent Chinese rights activist in London. Six were blocked in 2013 and four in 2012, he said.

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