China attempts to suppress Free Tibet at UN forum

Tuesday, 14 August 2018

Information supplied by Free Tibet and Tibet Watch to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination was initially removed from the UN website under Chinese pressure

Tuesday, 14 August 2018 

Free Tibet media release, for immediate use

Free Tibet and its research partner Tibet Watch today expressed their gratitude to the members of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (“CERD” or “the Committee”) [1] for speaking up for human rights in Tibet and defending the international human rights system at a time when it is under exceptional pressure.

This follows attempts by China to have Free Tibet and Tibet Watch’s joint report removed from the website of the 96th Session of the Committee. It also follows remarks made during China’s review, in which the Chinese delegation derided the contributions of organisations that had supplied information to the Committee and appeared to question the integrity of several members of the Committee for using such information.

China underwent its review by the Committee in Geneva on Friday 10 August and Monday 13 August [2]. The aim of the Committee is to question countries’ efforts to combat and eliminate racial discrimination. The participating country is expected to provide evidence of steps that it has taken to do this.

In July, prior to the review, Free Tibet and Tibet Watch submitted their report on areas where China had either failed to combat racial discrimination in Tibet or imposed new forms of discrimination [3]. Two weeks later, on 25 July, Free Tibet was contacted by a staff member at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, informing them that the Chair of CERD had requested that their submission be removed from the session’s website. The decision to remove the submission was based on the fact that the submission contained a footnote referring to Tibet being invaded and occupied in 1950, and that Free Tibet’s mission statement again referred to China’s occupation of Tibet. These terms, which did not feature in the body of the report and are not controversial to experts working on Tibet, have regularly appeared in Free Tibet and Tibet Watch’s submissions to UN human rights bodies and have never been challenged before.

The decision to remove the submission has barely any precedent among UN human rights bodies, which accept a wide range of submissions from human rights organisations and civil society groups. Free Tibet and Tibet Watch have strong grounds to believe that the decision to remove their submission was taken after the Chinese delegation put pressure on the Chair of CERD. This follows an established precedent, noted by human rights organisations, of the Chinese government exerting pressure on UN human rights bodies [4].

In response to this move, Free Tibet contacted each of the Committee members to bring the removal of the submission to their attention. The submission was restored to the website around 9 August, the day before China’s review.

Free Tibet and Tibet Watch director Eleanor Byrne-Rosengren said:

“It is obvious why China would want to suppress the contents of our report, but deeply concerning that a UN human rights body would engage in what is tantamount to censorship because a country under its review put pressure on it. The initial decision to remove a report based on entirely uncontroversial terms such as invasion and occupation must not become a precedent. It would risk betraying some of the most vulnerable people in the world, who rely on the UN to hear their voices.

“Thankfully this story had a happy ending and our report is once again back on the CERD session’s website for all to see. We are thankful to any members of CERD and staff in the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights who pushed back against this decision and ensured that the report was restored.”

When China’s review began last Friday, the Committee members asked a number of questions to the Chinese delegation covering racial discrimination against Tibetans, Uyghurs, North Korean refugees and the populations of Hong Kong and Macau.

In one particularly strong section, Committee member Professor Verene Shepherd raised the absence of the Tibetan language in court proceedings and the decline in the use of Tibetan in the education system in Tibet. She asked the delegation whether these measures contravened China’s own constitution [5]. Professor Verene Shepherd also raised the case of Tashi Wangchuk, the Tibetan language rights advocate who was sentenced to five years in prison in May this year.

On Monday, the Chinese delegation, which comprised nearly 50 people, provided voluminous written information that it had prepared over the weekend. Despite the number of documents handed to the Committee by the Chinese delegation, members of the Committee noted that key information was absent from some of the delegation’s oral and written responses and continued to press for answers to their questions [6].

Towards the end of the review on Monday, a member of the Chinese delegation appeared to challenge the expertise of several members of the Committee, questioning the basis for their questions and recommendations to China [7]. The representative said:

“Some members [of the Committee] call some of the unsubstantiated materials as ‘credible information’[…] the committee has received certain materials which are from certain political organisations which openly deny China’s sovereignty and seek to split China […] they do not hide their intentions to split China. Certain organisations have forms of connections with terrorist organisations. Their so-called accusations carry obvious political intentions and are not consistent with the facts. If such materials are regarded as credible, we cannot help asking what is the basis for such judgements.”

The representative added: “we […] sincerely hope that the Committee will make careful screening of the unsubstantiated materials from certain political groups who seek to split the state and incite confusion.”

Professor Gun Kut, a member of the Committee, immediately responded in his closing remarks, noting the often evasive answers provided by the Chinese delegation:

"My overall sentiment […] with all due respect […], is disappointment, because most of the answers were very defensive and basically were expressed in a way to reject some of the questions as baseless and uninformative. I'm sure the high-level and large delegation from China does not consider this body of experts believing in various lies and repeating them in a dialogue with yourselves. I am sure you didn’t come all the way from China to basically say that everything is OK and that there is not much to be done […] I think we could have had a much better opportunity for a fruitful discussion.”

Noureddine Amir, the Chairperson, followed Professor Gun Kut’s remarks by thanking members of non-governmental organisations and civil society for being present at the review and for their interest in the dialogue.

The review closed with Committee member Nicolás Marugán urging the Chinese delegation to carry out an investigation into the death of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche in Chinese custody. Tenzin Delek Rinpoche was a high-ranking Tibetan Buddhist monk and community leader. He spent 13 years in prison and died in July 2015 after being denied medical parole.

Eleanor Byrne-Rosengren said:

“Over the past week, a committee of experts have, in a careful, firm and well-informed manner, scrutinised China’s abject failure to comply with its own laws and international standards designed to protect people under its rule from racial discrimination. We have reason to believe that the Committee has come under substantial pressure from China to water down its questions and therefore neglect its role of holding it to account. On the contrary, those present heard details of discrimination against Tibetans and the names of Tashi Wangchuk and Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, two brave Tibetans whose names and memories the Chinese government has repeatedly tried to suppress. The abiding lesson of this session was that the human rights violations that China oversees in Tibet will not be suppressed. If Beijing wishes to stop us from raising human rights abuses, the only solution is to stop carrying them out.”

-ends-

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Notes to editors

[1] Full details on CERD’s work can be found here: https://www.ohchr.org/en/hrbodies/cerd/pages/cerdindex.aspx

[2] China’s full review can be seen here: http://webtv.un.org/meetings-events/human-rights-treaty-bodies/watch/consideration-of-china-2654th-meeting-96th-session-committee-on-elimination-of-racial-discrimination/5821318102001/?term=

[3] Free Tibet and Tibet Watch’s submission can be found here: http://www.tibetwatch.org/uploads/2/4/3/4/24348968/cerd_-_china_july_2018.pdf 

[4] China has worked consistently and often aggressively to silence criticism of its human rights record before UN bodies and has taken actions aimed at weakening some of the central mechanisms available in those institutions to advance rights.“ ‘The Costs of International Advocacy: China’s Interference in United Nations Human Rights Mechanisms’, Human Rights Watch, 5 September 2017: https://www.hrw.org/report/2017/09/05/costs-international-advocacy/chinas-interference-united-nations-human-rights 

[5] Professor Verene Shepherd referred to Article 4 of the Chinese Constitution, which states that: "All nationalities have the freedom to use and develop their own spoken and written languages". Her remarks can be found from 2:32:40 in the UN web stream of the session here:  http://webtv.un.org/meetings-events/human-rights-treaty-bodies/watch/consideration-of-china-2654th-meeting-96th-session-committee-on-elimination-of-racial-discrimination/5821318102001/?term=

[6] For example, one of the experts, Professor Gay McDougall, noted on Monday that nowhere in the delegation’s answers or documents was there a definition of “extremism” or “separatism”, despite these charges being frequently used against minorities and despite the Committee asking for these definitions. This can be found at 2:41:30 in the web stream:http://webtv.un.org/meetings-events/human-rights-treaty-bodies/watch/consideration-of-china-contd-2655th-meeting-96th-session-committee-on-elimination-of-racial-discrimination/5821422267001/?term=

[7] The remarks by the Chinese delegate and the responses from members of the Committee can be found from 2:49:40 of the web stream here: http://webtv.un.org/meetings-events/human-rights-treaty-bodies/watch/consideration-of-china-contd-2655th-meeting-96th-session-committee-on-elimination-of-racial-discrimination/5821422267001/?term=