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Home » Uncategorized » As the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders Turns 20, China Wages a Multi-Pronged Attack on Rights Defenders

As the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders Turns 20, China Wages a Multi-Pronged Attack on Rights Defenders

Andrea Worden, March 14, 2018


“Everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, to promote and to strive for the protection and realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

–– UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders


UN Declaration on HRDs


The Chinese government attacks human rights defenders (HRDs) – those who peacefully defend and promote human rights – on a range of fronts. First, and most critically, are the government’s attacks on HRDs at home. The relentless crackdown on human rights defenders has gone from bad to worse under Xi Jinping, and we can expect the downward trend to accelerate now that Xi is no longer constrained by term limits. While the resilience of China’s beleaguered HRDs is remarkable, their numbers are shrinking; a few prominent examples of HRDs detained, disappeared, or dead at the hands of the state include: Ilham Tohti, Liu Xiaobo, Tashi Wangchuk, Wang Quanzhang, Li Baiguang, and Cao Shunli.

Second, China harasses, obstructs, and jails HRDs who attempt to engage with the UN human rights mechanisms. A recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) report details the various ways the Chinese government interferes with civil society engagement at the UN, from restrictions on travel and detention (to prevent activists, as in the case of Cao Shunli, from traveling to Geneva), to reprisals and threats against family members of HRDs.

Third, and the focus of this article, China challenges the concept and even the term “human rights defenders” at the UN. With the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders (Declaration) celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, and China undergoing its third Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in November, this is an important moment to press China on its utter lack of compliance with the Declaration.

I recently wrote at China Change about China’s aggressive promotion of “human rights with Chinese characteristics” at the Human Rights Council (HRC) to undermine settled international human rights norms and push its vision for “global human rights governance.” This article will look at China’s recent moves in its long-term effort to dilute the concept and “harmonize” the term “human rights defenders,” while at the same time appearing to be a “responsible actor” on human rights at the UN. This two-fold strategy was on display in November 2017, when the Third Committee of the General Assembly adopted by consensus a resolution marking the 20th anniversary of the Declaration, which China joined, while it sought at the same time to weaken the text and the impact of the resolution.

The Declaration on Human Rights Defenders in Brief

The term “human rights defender,” surprisingly, does not appear in the text of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders (the Declaration’s sobriquet), nor in its unwieldy official title: “Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individual, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.” Thus, not surprisingly, the Declaration lacks a precise definition of the term “human rights defender.” Article 1 of the Declaration states simply: “Everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, to promote and to strive for the protection and realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms…” Those who exercise this right (through peaceful, nonviolent means) are human rights defenders; human rights defenders are identified first and foremost by what they do.

The Declaration highlights those rights that HRDs (and others) already have pursuant to international human rights law –– such as those set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and other human rights instruments –– which are fundamental for the defense of human rights. These rights include, among others, the rights to peaceful assembly and association, freedom of expression and opinion, free flow of information, the right to participate in public affairs, the right to due process and an effective remedy for violations of human rights defenders’ rights, and the right to solicit and receive funds for rights defense work. (See inter alia, arts. 5-9, 12,13; and discussion in Chinese here.)

States have various duties and responsibilities under the Declaration, including “to protect, promote and implement all human rights and fundamental freedoms” and to create a safe and enabling legal and administrative environment for the effective guarantee and enjoyment “of all those rights and freedoms in practice.” (Art. 2.)

China’s Role in the Drafting of the Declaration

The drafting of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders took 14 years and was described by Amnesty International as “tortuous” in a 1995 account. The glaring absence of the term “human rights defenders” from the Declaration’s title and text –– despite the usage of the term during negotiations of the text –– speaks to the contentiousness of the process that brought the Declaration into being.

In 1985, the UN Commission on Human Rights (predecessor to the Human Rights Council), created a working group to draft the Declaration. At first, the former Soviet Union and Eastern bloc countries were primarily responsible for moves that hindered progress on the draft text; however, in the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and other geopolitical shifts, the States most responsible for obstruction and delay on the draft were Cuba, China, and Syria, with Mexico and Iran playing supporting antagonistic roles.

In 1994, according to Amnesty’s account, China and Cuba argued to remove from the draft an article relating to the right to solicit and obtain resources for the work of HRDs.  In 1995, China and Cuba also pushed for inclusion of wording that would have limited defenders to the right to peacefully oppose only violations of their own rights, rather than human rights abuses suffered by others. In addition, China supported a proposal offered by Cuba that would have created numerous limitations on the work of HRDs, including restricting the work of HRDs to its “humanitarian essence.” Amnesty concluded at the time that the “root problem is that a small group of governments seem determined to prevent the creation of a useful instrument for the defence of human rights.”

The fractious working group eventually reached agreement on a final text, and

on December 9, 1998, the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders by consensus ( i.e., without a vote).  The adoption was timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by the General Assembly (December 10, 1948). Although the Declaration on HRDs is not legally binding, its adoption by consensus –– despite the struggle it took to reach an agreed text –– is a sign of political will among UN Member States for the principles, language, and action items contained in the Declaration.

China Pushes Back Against Growing Momentum for Protection of HRDs

During the past 20 years, however, countries have differed greatly in the extent to which they have embraced, or opposed, the Declaration and the changes it helped catalyze. China has continuously undermined protection for human rights defenders at the UN, and persistently wages war on the term, regardless of where it may show up (e.g., HRC resolutions in June 2016 on the elimination of discrimination against women and violence against women). As HRW notes in its recent report, The Costs of International Advocacy, during the June 2016 session, a Chinese diplomat stated that the HRC “should not promote such a controversial concept.”

As human rights defenders have become recognized as a vital part of the international human rights mechanisms, and the UN creates more space for civil society, China and other States (e.g., China’s friends in the so-called Like-Minded Group) have intensified their efforts to silence them. A UN official quoted by HRW said: “The whole UN machinery tries to make space for civil society while the PRC machinery works the other way, trying to shrink the space for NGOs.”

The tactics used by China and other authoritarian regimes to silence those who try to engage with the UN human rights mechanisms has led to a greater focus on the issue of reprisals at the Human Rights Council and in the UN system as a whole. In September 2017, China abstained from an HRC resolution on cooperation with the UN human rights mechanisms and reprisals. Earlier, China challenged the treaty body chairs’ adoption of the San Jose Guidelines, measures aimed to protect civil society actors from reprisals for their efforts to engage with the treaty bodies.

China’s Efforts to Undermine HRDs in the General Assembly’s Third Committee in 2017

In October 2017, during the interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders on his annual report in the General Assembly’s (GA) Third Committee –– a key component of the UN human rights infrastructure  –– a Chinese diplomat delivered a statement that summarizes some of the key arguments China marshals against HRDs at the UN (English) (Chinese). Ms. Qu Jiehao stated:

“China is of the view that as there is no clear and universal definition worked out through intergovernmental negotiation on “human rights defenders”, countries have different views on who can be defined as ‘human rights defenders.’ All people should enjoy the same human rights and fundamental freedoms on an equal basis. Human rights defenders should not be regarded as a special group to be granted special rights and status. Those who have violated law or engaged in criminal activities in the name of ‘human rights defenders’ to undermine the interests of the majority of people or public order should be brought to justice according to law.”

China and other countries that are not friendly toward HRDs use the absence of a definition of the term “human rights defenders” in the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders to argue that the term and concept “human rights defenders” is ambiguous and controversial–– notwithstanding the robust and expanding UN (not to mention regional and national) infrastructure on human rights defenders.

Moreover, China speciously argues that the Declaration on HRDs creates “special rights” for HRDs. The text of the Declaration is clear, however, that the rights highlighted therein are contained in the UDHR and other core human rights instruments, and are specifically emphasized because they are critically important to the defense of human rights. The Chinese government also invokes its domestic laws (e.g., those that in practice are used to criminalize peaceful speech and assembly) to argue that HRDs are engaged in “illegal conduct,” and thus are not only undeserving of protection, but also criminally liable. China also invokes “non-interference in internal affairs” on this issue, as it does with so many issues at the UN.

A resolution on human rights defenders, with different themes and emphases, is introduced biennially, in alternating years, in the GA’s Third Committee in New York and the Human Rights Council in Geneva. Norway takes the lead on the HRD resolutions, as it did in November 2017 in the Third Committee, and strives to achieve a consensus text to signal to HRDs around the globe that the UN unanimously supports them.

On November 20, Ambassador May-Elin Stener, the Deputy Permanent Representative for Norway to the UN, introduced the draft resolution on human rights defenders (A/C.3/72/L.50/Rev.1) in the 51st meeting of the Third Committee of the GA’s 72nd session (UN Web TV @ 14:00). The resolution calls for an end to violence and reprisals against HRDs and the active promotion of the Declaration and its implementation during 2018. The resolution also provides for a high-level plenary meeting of the General Assembly during its 73rd session in 2018 on the promotion of the Declaration, and requests the Secretary-General to “undertake a comprehensive assessment and analysis of progress, achievements and challenges” on how the UN mechanisms can better assist States in “strengthening the role and security of human rights defenders.”

After Ambassador Stener presented oral revisions to the draft resolution (beginning @ 17:44) that reflected further negotiations, she invited the Committee to adopt the resolution by consensus, as orally revised, so “the Third Committee can send a clear message of unanimous support of human rights defenders in all parts of the world.”

Estonia, speaking for the EU (beginning @ 31:05), expressed a certain degree of dissatisfaction with the text. Estonia stated that the EU welcomed “the aim of this resolution” to use the 20th anniversary of the Declaration “in a manner that is supportive of the work of the human rights defenders around the world.” But he expressed the EU’s concern that there were “a number of areas” that “could have benefitted from a strengthening of the text, including more accurate references to existing official UN documents and the removal of unnecessary qualifiers.” But in the interests of achieving consensus, the EU agreed to the final text.

Although China also joined the consensus on the adoption of the resolution, and did not call for a vote, as it had in 2015, it nevertheless issued a statement challenging certain aspects of the resolution.

The Chinese delegate (beginning @ 33:10) welcomed the tabling of the resolution and said that it joined the consensus after oral amendments. In particular, the delegate expressed China’s appreciation for Norway accepting its proposals on a few specific paragraphs, including preambular (i.e., introductory) paragraph 7 (discussed below). He then laid out China’s positions and reservations.

With respect to preambular paragraph (PP) 9, which describes rights defenders’ work as “positive, important, and legitimate,” China stated:

“Preambular paragraph 9 contains preconceived notions that the roles and activities of human rights defenders are legitimate. China reiterates that … human rights defenders must carry out their activities in a peaceful and lawful way. Human rights defenders, if acting in violation of domestic law, shall be equally sanctioned by the law as others. No state shall employ the issue of human rights defenders as a tool to interfere in other countries’ internal affairs.”

China also expressed concern about operative (i.e., action-oriented) paragraph (OP) 7, which condemns the criminalization of, and intimidation and violence against human rights defenders for reporting and seeking information on human rights abuses, and OP 8, which urges States to protect the right of everyone to interact with international human rights bodies. China stated that these two paragraphs “go beyond the scope of the application of the Declaration.”

With respect to the paragraph calling for a high-level meeting of the GA in its next session (OP 14), the Chinese delegate stated, “the paragraph is ambiguous about the nature of the meeting.” He continued: “China wishes to highlight that this meeting shall be of a commemorative nature and its purpose is to promote the declaration. China is not in favor of the adoption of an outcome document in this meeting.”

The Chinese delegate noted that China had called for a vote on the human rights defenders’ resolution two years earlier in 2015 but this year (2017) it joined the consensus, because it believed that the current text had improved compared with the 2015 resolution. The call for a vote in 2015 by China and Russia was unprecedented; at the time, Amnesty expressed concern about “actions taken by some Member States to undermine the crucial principles of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders adopted in 1998.”

With respect to the 2017 resolution, China’s change to PP 7 is potentially significant ––a footnote was added to the term “human rights defenders.” The footnote states: “The term human rights defenders applies consistent with the purposes, principles and provisions of the Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individual, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.” This unnecessary addition, which China took responsibility for, is perplexing. It may be an opening salvo in a bid to undermine the common understanding of the work of HRDs and their rights, and the States’ responsibility to protect them. The fact that the representative of the Russian Federation (beginning @ 37:30) expressed support for the footnote is cause for concern. The delegate stated that Russia was “pleased to see” in the orally amended document “specifications regarding the term human rights defenders.”

Moreover, Switzerland expressed concern about China’s addition of the footnote (beginning @ 47:45), stating: “we regret the addition of a footnote under PP 7, which seeks to define the term human rights in the resolution. Switzerland believes that this footnote is applicable only in the context of this resolution on the 20th anniversary of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, and we reserve our position for the future.”

Different iterations of the draft resolution also reflect a struggle over its title. The title of the first version of the resolution tabled in late October 2017 (A/C.3/72/L.50) included a parenthetical with the shorthand name for the Declaration’s cumbersome title: “Twentieth anniversary and promotion of the Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (commonly referred to as the Declaration on human rights defenders).” [Emphasis added.] The parenthetical didn’t last long. In the next version of the negotiated text (A/C.3/72/L.50. Rev.1), the “commonly referred to as” language was moved to a footnote, and in the final version of the resolution that was adopted by the Third Committee, the footnote had disappeared, and the “commonly referred to as” language resurfaced in an easy-to-miss spot at the end of the third preambular paragraph.

In late December 2017, the GA adopted by consensus the Third Committee’s final draft resolution on the 20th anniversary of the Declaration. Now that we are well into 2018, it’s incumbent upon all stakeholders to proactively promote the Declaration and work towards strengthening its implementation.



*          *          *

What can be done at the UN during the 20th anniversary year of the Declaration? 

There are several significant opportunities for civil society engagement on China and the issue of human rights defenders in 2018.

First, China’s next Universal Periodic Review (UPR) will take place in November 2018. The deadline for NGO submissions is March 29. China’s national report is due in July 2018. Despite the fact that States are obligated to consult with domestic civil society in the process of drafting their National reports, China’s practice, not surprisingly, has been to enlist GONGOs in an effort to appear to “satisfy” this requirement.

Second, as Tess McEvoy of the NGO International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) notes, the resolution marking the 20th anniversary of the Declaration “gives human rights defenders the opportunity to channel analyses and recommendations related to implementation into UN processes, with the ultimate aim of establishing better implementation and procedures.” The high-level meeting of the General Assembly on the situation of human rights defenders will take place sometime during the fall of 2018, and input from HRDs worldwide will be sought in advance for a report to be presented at that meeting.




Declaration on Human Rights Defenders  (English) (Chinese)

OHCHR, Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders

Website of the current UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of human rights defenders, Mr. Michel Forst

OHCHR Fact Sheet No. 29, Human Rights Defenders: Protecting the Right to Defend Human Rights  (English)  (Chinese)

Janika Spannagel, Declaration on Human Rights Defenders (1998), November 2017

International Service for Human Rights, Third Committee of the UN General Assembly: A Practical Guide for NGOs (2017)

Universal Periodic Review –– A Practical Guide for Civil Society (English) (Chinese)

Sonya Sceats with Shaun Breslin, China and the International Human Rights System (Chatham House, October 2012)

Human Rights Watch, The Costs of International Advocacy (September 2017)

Chinese Human Rights Defenders, Repression & Resilience: Annual Report on Situation of Human Rights Defenders in China (2017)

Andrea Worden, China Pushes ‘Human Rights With Chinese Characteristics’ at the UN






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