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GAP Questions UN High Commissioner for Human Rights About Revealing Names of Chinese Dissidents

Bea Edwards, November 13, 2017

Last week, the Government Accountability Project (GAP) transmitted a letter to Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, on behalf of GAP client Emma Reilly. 

Ms. Reilly is a staff member in the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), and she reported in February 2013 that the Human Rights Council support staff had been instructed to disclose to the Chinese government the names of human rights defenders (HRDs) in China who were expected to appear at upcoming Human Rights Council sessions (based on their application for credentials).

Ms. Reilly believed that this instruction constituted misconduct, given that it violated a fundamental principle of human rights work that all UN human rights monitors respect: do no harm. She believed (and believes) that notifying a government of the identities of its nationals expected to appear and testify at upcoming Human Rights Council (HRC) sessions endangered these speakers. Subsequent events, unfortunately, proved her right: Chinese dissident Cao Shunli was detained by Chinese officials at the airport in Beijing as she was about to travel to Geneva in September 2013. She died in detention six months later.

Since making her disclosure, Ms. Reilly has experienced an increasingly hostile work environment. She filed a retaliation complaint with the Ethics Office seeking protection. In response, the Ethics Office twice denied her protection, claiming the conduct she disclosed was not misconduct: The Ethics Office asserted that the UN has no specific regulation prohibiting the provision of information to upcoming participants at HRC sessions to governments that might harm them.

This is, in itself, baffling, but the statement of the High Commissioner on the subject when questioned about it by Human Rights Watch is also confusing. In response to direct questions about information transmitted to China prior to HRC sessions, Zeid denied that names of HRDs are provided to the government before these speakers travel from China to Geneva.

GAP therefore wrote to Zeid asking that he clarify his position on the issue, as his recent statements leave Ms. Reilly in juridical limbo at the UN. As retaliation intensifies, she remains without protection from those who condone this practice. In our letter, we ask specifically whether OHCHR condones informing the Chinese government of the identities of its dissidents about to travel to HRC sessions in Geneva before they leave China. If it does, why did Zeid deny such a practice to interlocutors at Human Rights Watch earlier this year? If it does not, how did the Ethics Office conclude that providing such information was not misconduct and leave Ms. Reilly exposed to further reprisal?

Read GAP’s letter here.