Andrea Worden, July 10, 2018
During the most recent session of the UN’s Committee on NGOs, China attempted unsuccessfully to have the Committee withdraw the NGO consultative status of the Society for Threatened Peoples (STP) in connection with its support of Dolkun Isa, a human rights activist, German citizen, and president of the World Uyghur Congress. Mr. Isa, a member of STP, received accreditation through the NGO to attend this year’s session of the annual UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) in New York from April 16-27. Despite having received prior approval to attend, Mr. Isa was blocked from entering UN headquarters on April 17 by diplomatic security because of unspecified “security concerns.” Following a subsequent unsuccessful attempt to gain entry into the UN, it took intervention at the highest levels, from at least the U.S. and German Permanent Missions, to finally get Mr. Isa into the building so that he could participate in the UNPFII, but by that time–– April 25–– there were only a few days left in the session.
The Chinese government has for many years accused Mr. Isa of being a “terrorist” but has failed to produce any substantiated evidence to support its accusations. Last year, China requested that UN diplomatic security remove Mr. Isa from UN premises while he was participating in the 2017 meeting of UNPFII, citing, as it did in 2018, “security reasons.” The UN Secretary-General’s 2017 report on reprisals against civil society actors included the incident of Dolkun Isa’s removal from UN headquarters at the behest of China in April 2017 (A/HRC/36/31, para. 29). In February 2018, Interpol removed a longstanding China-initiated red notice (i.e., an international alert) against Mr. Isa.
Having achieved only limited success in preventing Mr. Isa’s participation in the 2018 Permanent Forum –– although China caused a substantial delay, Mr. Isa eventually did gain access to the UN–– China adopted a new tactic, which, had it been successful, would have had long-term consequences for both STP and Mr. Isa. Late in the day on Friday, May 17–– the last working day before the opening meeting of the 2018 second (“resumed”) session of the NGO Committee, the Chinese Permanent Mission circulated a note verbale (i.e., an unsigned diplomatic correspondence) to the Members of the Committee, setting forth its reasons for seeking the withdrawal of STP’s consultative status. Besides a groundless procedural point regarding the accreditation of Mr. Isa, China’s objections to STP’s consultative status can be summed up by this sweeping unsubstantiated accusation in its letter: “Dolkun Isa has been participating, inciting and funding separatism and terrorism for years.”
The May 21 Meeting
At the opening meeting on May 21, China referred (@ 36:30) to its note verbale and requested that the consultative status of the Society for Threatened Peoples be withdrawn. Repeating many of the accusations contained in China’s letter, the Chinese delegate said that China had designated Mr. Isa as a “terrorist” in 2003, and that he was “a terrorist in every manifestation,” and therefore should not have been accredited by the STP to participate in activities at the UN. The Chinese diplomat acknowledged that under the Committee’s procedures, the STP should be given an opportunity to respond (although Mr. Isa himself was not given such an opportunity). A heated discussion followed, consuming a substantial portion of the morning meeting (and thus further delaying the work of the overloaded and backlogged Committee), with the U.S. leading a counter-attack against China for its attempt to make the NGO Committee “an accomplice” to its reprisals against STP and Mr. Isa. Committee Members that are aligned with China, including Russia, Pakistan, Cuba and Iran, predictably expressed concern about the nature of China’s allegations against STP, which they said warranted serious consideration by the Committee. The delegations praised China for following the procedures of the Committee in asking for a response from STP before the Committee decided the matter.
Representatives from the U.S. and Germany (as an observer of the Committee) said that despite repeated requests by their governments to China to provide substantiated evidence for its accusations of “terrorism” against Dolkun Isa, China had failed to produce any credible evidence or actionable intelligence to support its claims. The German representative said that German security authorities “possess no information that [Mr. Isa] might pose a security risk.” Both delegations stressed that the UN would not have issued Mr. Isa a badge enabling him to gain access to the UN if they believed he was a security risk, nor would the U.S. have granted him a visa (Mr. Isa has a 10-year multiple entry visa to the U.S.). The U.S. and Germany said that the allegations against Mr. Isa were unfounded and unsubstantiated and requested that China withdraw its proposal to have STP’s consultative status revoked, and also urged the Committee to not let itself be used as a vehicle for reprisals against NGOs. The EU also opposed removing STP’s accreditation; and the observer from the U.K. cautioned the Committee against “moving at the speed of lightning when attempting to revoke an accreditation,” particularly when it moves “so very slowly” in considering new accreditations, particularly for human rights NGOs.
The German representative also took China to task for the very short notice of its proposal, which was distributed just several working hours before the opening of the session. With respect to STP, he said it was an independent human rights organization registered in Germany that focuses on the rights of religious and ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples, and that it was granted ECOSOC status in 1993. He further stated that Mr. Isa was “correctly registered as a representative for STP.” The German representative also added that “after serious deliberations,” in February 2018 Interpol deleted the red notice against Mr. Isa.
Regarding Interpol’s decision to remove the red notice against Mr. Isa, the Chinese representative said that to China’s knowledge, “this act of cancellation was totally initiated by the Secretary General, who is German, and the director of the legal department of Interpol, who is an American.” He said they “didn’t really consult with the member States, let alone China,” and claimed that it was done out of “political motivations,” and that it was “underhanded,” a “total dark box operation.”
China and the United States exchanged several volleys. In addition to stressing that Mr. Isa posed no security threat, Ambassador Currie of the U.S. said that it was clear what was really going on: China was attempting to silence a human rights defender from a silenced community in China for speaking up for the rights of that group at the U.N. She referenced several accounts about the plight of the Uyghurs in China, including recent reports documenting that hundreds of thousands and possibly up to one million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities were being detained in “re-education camps” in Xinjiang. China responded that the Western media was biased against China, and that “the Chinese government has always paid attention to and protected the rights of all the ethnic minorities, including the Uyghur people” and that Uyghurs in Xinjiang have seen “the best protection of their human rights in history.”
The Chinese delegate also suggested that Ambassador Currie was personally biased, and accused her of getting “emotional” about the issue because of prior work she had done relating to Xinjiang. He added, “I suspect she has close contact with those people.” The U.S. delegation raised a point of order, stating said the Committee had hit a “new low” and that the Chinese representative’s comments were “completely inappropriate.” The Chair of the Committee, Mr. Jorge Dotta of Uruguay, took the point of order and advised the Chinese delegate to “confine himself to concrete aspects of his information about the NGO” and to not go into other unrelated matters, and cautioned, “we mustn’t get into a political discussion.”
STP was given until May 25 to submit its written response to the question from China. China thus not only consumed a significant portion of the NGO Committee’s time and attention at its opening meeting with its vexatious ploy, it also imposed an unwarranted burden on STP, distracting the NGO from its advocacy work at the UN.
Lastly, when the Chair attempted to give the floor to a representative of civil society, China and Russia raised a point of order. They said there wasn’t enough time to hear from civil society, and that the Committee should adhere to its work agenda. China of course was responsible for the delay in the first place with its unfounded proposal against STP, and then invoked “time constraints” to silence the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) from making a statement on behalf of 100 NGOs. Many delegations came to the defense of civil society and ISHR’s right to speak and be heard, particularly given the mandate of the NGO Committee to enable greater civil society involvement with the UN. Fifteen minutes after China raised its point of order, the Chair stated that due to a lack of consensus on the issue, ISHR would not take the floor. China thus consumed more of the Committee’s meeting time with its objection to a civil society statement, which likely would have taken only several minutes to deliver.
The May 30 Meeting
China’s proposal regarding STP’s status was not discussed during the May 25th meeting, but was addressed at the 29th meeting of the Committee held on May 30. The Chinese government (@ 2:05) noted the written response from STP to the NGO Committee’s question, and said that although China’s position–– reflected in the May 17 note verbale and its statements during the Committee meeting on May 21–– “remains unchanged,” it would no longer seek the withdrawal of STP’s consultative status during the current session. The representative of China strongly urged STP to “earnestly fulfill” the commitments it made in its written response, which included respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China and not appointing terrorists as its representative, and to “avoid past mistakes.” He said that China would be “closely following” the organization’s activities in the UN, including the Human Rights Council, and would “take necessary measures in the NGO Committee as appropriate.”
The June 11 Meeting
On Monday, June 11, the Committee gathered for its final meeting of the 2018 second session in order to adopt its report for the session. The meeting opened with an unexpected announcement from the Chair, Mr. Jorge Dotta (@ 00:45). He said he had received a note from the Secretary General of Interpol (Mr. Jürgen Stock) on the preceding Friday. Mr. Stock requested that Mr. Dotta mention to the Committee Members that he had addressed a communication to the PRC delegation “in reference to a statement made by [the PRC] delegation on the 21st of May 2018.” Mr. Dotta told the Committee “he was complying with that request with the understanding that that matter is a bilateral issue to be considered between the delegation of China and the Secretary General of lnterpol.” He said he was “expecting it to be resolved in the best possible manner” and that since the issue was not part of the Committee’s agenda and beyond his mandate, the Committee should proceed with its work.
This incident involving Interpol is an example of the important role played by webcasting the Committee’s open meetings, a new practice mandated by an April 2017 ECOSOC resolution. The webcast enabled Interpol officials to watch for themselves the accusations made by the Chinese delegate, who claimed that the cancellation of the red notice against Mr. Isa was politically motivated. This point of contention between the Secretary General and the PRC delegation would not have been known to the public but for the webcasts of the May 21 and June 11 meetings. The public documents issued relating to the session, including the unofficial written coverage of the meetings
(May 21, June 11) and the Committee’s adopted report, did not mention China’s remarks about the cancellation of the red notice, nor the communication from the Interpol Secretary General to the Committee Chair. Mr. Stock apparently wanted the Committee Members to know that he took issue with China’s statement on the matter. The fact that the current Interpol President, Mr. Meng Hongwei, is Chinese had not deterred the Secretary General from démarching the Chinese delegation. China, however, has yet to retract the baseless accusations it made against Mr. Isa on May 21. This is the shadow side of webcasting: it provides a public platform at the UN for governments to broadcast unfounded accusations against organizations and individuals, without a commensurate opportunity for those attacked to defend themselves.
Although its gambit to have STP disaccredited during the May session was unsuccessful, China has signaled that it is capable of using its position on the NGO Committee to aggressively target currently accredited NGOs. The United States led a forceful defense of Mr. Isa and STP, and civil society more broadly. This was both an inspiring example of what the U.S. and its allies can do for the cause of human rights at the UN, and a sobering reminder of a possible “pushback gap” that may emerge at the Human Rights Council with the absence of the U.S., which had been at the forefront of efforts at the Council to counter China’s increasingly aggressive anti-human rights tactics.
The Geneva-based UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) will review China’s implementation of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination on August 10 and 13. CERD is the main UN treaty body that focuses on the rights of ethnic minorities per the provisions of the treaty. The current arbitrary detention (and disappearances) of hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities, and the Chinese government’s relentless drive to wipe out their religious and cultural identity, must be addressed at the Committee’s upcoming review, and civil society voices must be heard. The CERD review and China’s Universal Periodic Review in November might also explain China’s attempt to seek a quick revocation of the Society for Threatened Peoples’ consultative status. Fortunately, China failed, this time.
Andrea Worden is a human rights activist, lawyer, and writer. She has worked on human rights and rule of law issues involving China throughout much of her career, and previously held positions as the Acting Executive Director of Asia Catalyst, Advocacy Director with the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), and Senior Counsel at the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC). Her essays and articles on human rights issues in China have appeared in such publications as the The Pro-Democracy Protests in China: Reports from the Provinces, Yale-China Review, Georgetown Journal of International Law, South China Morning Post, and China Rights Forum, among others.
Follow her on Twitter @tingdc
Background on China and the NGO Committee
The UN’s Committee on NGOs is a standing committee of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), and is supported in its work by the NGO Branch of the Office of Intergovernmental Support and Coordination for Sustainable Development, a division of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA). China has occupied the top spot at DESA for more than 10 years; the current Under-Secretary-General is Liu Zhenmin, a veteran diplomat and official in the PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs. DESA is reportedly widely known as China’s turf.
The NGO Committee is comprised of 19 Member States, which are elected for a four-year term based on the principle of equitable geographic representation. The mandate of the NGO Committee is to consider applications from NGOs seeking consultative status with the UN ––a status that enables NGOs to participate more substantially in the work of the UN than NGOs without such status. The Committee meets twice a year in New York, usually in January (regular session) and May (the resumed session). It makes recommendations on the NGO applications to the ECOSOC, which then votes in July. With a growing emphasis on civil society involvement with the UN, most recently, in connection with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the number of NGO applications has risen significantly over the past several years, leading to an expanding backlog of applications awaiting consideration and other delays in the Committee’s work. Since 2014, the NGO Branch has seen a 75% increase in the number of applications for consultative status received. (Draft Report of the Committee on NGOs on its 2018 resumed session, E/C.2/2018/CRP.59/Rev.1, para.33).
The NGO Committee has long been under attack by some governments, UN officials, and civil society, for behaving more like an “anti-NGO” committee. As noted above, China, along with several other countries on the Committee, actively obstructs the review of applications of certain NGOs, particularly NGOs whose work focuses on human rights. These governments often ask repetitive and inappropriate questions of the NGOs. All that’s needed is just one question from a Member State seeking clarification or additional information to delay consideration of the NGO’s application until the Committee’s next session. Sometimes the questioning, and the deferrals, can go on for years.
In its September 2017 report on China’s interference with the UN human rights mechanisms, Human Rights Watch noted that China’s obstructionism on the NGO Committee is most apparent with respect to “NGOs whose mission focuses on holding governments accountable, acting as watchdogs, or promoting human rights.” HRW included as one example relentless questioning of certain NGOs, including the Society for Threatened Peoples (STP), on China-related information in their quadrennial reports–– a report required of all NGOs with consultative status. STP faced five rounds of questioning, starting in September 2012. In June 2016, STP was asked by the NGO Committee “to elaborate on its position on Tibet.” China further enforces its positions on Tibet and Taiwan in the Committee by holding NGOs’ applications for consultative status hostage until they have scrubbed their websites and reports of any references to Taiwan as a country or Tibet as (historical) Tibet, rather than the PRC-created Tibet Autonomous Region.
Also by Andrea Worden:
China Pushes ‘Human Rights With Chinese Characteristics’ at the UN, Andrea Worden, October 9, 2017.
As the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders Turns 20, China Wages a Multi-Pronged Attack on Rights Defenders, Andrea Worden, March 14, 2018.
With Its Latest Human Rights Council Resolution, China Continues Its Assault on the UN Human Rights Framework, Andrea Worden, April 9, 2018.