Emma Reilly says she is not particularly popular at the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, the United Nations agency where she has worked since 2012.
The long-simmering tensions stem from a complaint she made more than seven years ago about an office practice which, in her view, potentially exposed human rights activists to retribution, including ethnic Uygur dissidents in China’s western Xinjiang region.
The office, known as the OHCHR, is tasked with protecting human rights and monitoring violations worldwide. Its Human Rights Council holds sessions three times a year where non-governmental organisations and others can make presentations and report on human rights violations.
Reilly’s complaint, which she says remains unresolved after years of dispute and litigation, is that the OHCHR has not properly investigated whether the practice of secretly providing names to China of individuals attending the sessions in Geneva could have exposed them to harassment and intimidation.
“All these ethics officers at the UN have looked at it and determined that … handing the names to China, and only China, and doing it secretly, that’s fine,” said Reilly, who was regional director of Search for Common Ground in North Africa during the Arab spring before joining the UN.
“All the ethics officers agreed at that time so therefore it’s unreasonable of me to continue to report it,” she said in an interview.
In an emailed response to the South China Morning Post on November 23, Human Rights Office spokesman Rupert Colville said the practice of revealing names of participants at its sessions to governments had ceased in 2015. The Human Rights Council is made up of 47 states, including China.
“Ms. Reilly’s allegations relate to a discontinued historical practice whereby the names of Human Rights Council participants were occasionally confirmed to states in limited circumstances, with care taken to ensure that no action taken by OHCHR would endanger human rights activists,” Colville said.
The Human Rights Office “unequivocally rejects” Reilly’s claims of improper action, Colville said. He declined to say whether China was the only country that received advance confirmation of the attendance of activists, as Reilly alleged.
Internal investigations of Reilly’s claims were carried out, but the Human Rights Office was not able to share the findings as appeals were ongoing, Colville said.
Dolkun Isa, president of the World Uygur Congress, and China dissident Yang Jianli were two of the names provided to the Chinese government by the Human Rights Office in 2012 and 2013, according to OHCHR emails seen by the Post.
Isa, a Germany-based rights activist for the Muslim minority Uygur people in Xinjiang, said he and his colleagues were never informed the OHCHR had told the Chinese government they would be attending the 2013 session.
“It’s very disappointing. The UN is slowly, slowly losing credibility and trust internationally,” he said, adding that China’s money and influence should not come before human rights or the rules and values of the UN.
“The Chinese government has a record of attempting to obstruct any political activities I engage in if they find out about them in advance,” Isa wrote in a 2019 witness statement in support of Reilly’s claims.
“From time to time, my parents were pressured by Chinese police when I attended meetings. They were monitored 24 hours [a day] and were asked by the authorities to call me and tell me not to do political advocacy.”
Isa said he found out from relatives and news media his mother had died in a detention centre in 2018. He has been unable to find out the details of his father’s death, news of which reached him in January.
China has faced allegations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang, including by the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The allegations include that China built a network of forced internment camps in Xinjiang for Uygurs in an attempt to wipe out their ethnic identity through indoctrination.
Beijing does not deny the camps’ existence but rejects the description, calling them vocational training centres to contain religious extremism and terrorism in the vast region, which is three times the size of France and borders Afghanistan and Pakistan, among others.
Hundreds of people have been killed in Xinjiang in recent decades in riots and clashes between Uygurs and local Han Chinese, and Beijing has said its actions in the region are to prevent terrorist activities.
China is the second-largest funder to the United Nations, after the US, contributing US$368 million in 2019 which accounts for 12 per cent of the international organisation’s budget.
The Chinese mission to the UN did not respond to emailed requests for comment. In a 2013 communication sent to the Human Rights Office, it accused the World Uygur Congress of being linked to terrorist organisations and said Isa’s attendance was to carry out anti-China activities using the council.
Reilly, who holds a degree in mathematics from Britain’s Cambridge University and a law degree from Nottingham Law School, said she held the title of human rights officer at the OHCHR. She later became aware of the practice of providing names of activists when she was assigned to assist with Human Rights Council meetings in 2013.
Cases relating to Reilly and her complaints have been litigated by the UN internal justice system. A dispute tribunal in May 2019 ruled in Reilly’s favour, finding the failure of the UN administration to act on her complaint was unlawful, according to the court judgment.
Two other cases have been deemed “non-receivable” – in other words the UN courts will not admit them. Appeals against these decisions are in process, according to Reilly and the Human Rights Office.
A UN NGO liaison officer wrote in a 2016 email – provided by Reilly and seen by the Post – that she was not aware of countries other than China requesting to know if certain representatives from NGOs would attend the Human Rights Council sessions.
The officer, whose identity Reilly asked not to be disclosed, noted in the same email that attendance was usually public.
Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, a human rights NGO and UN watchdog, said he had seen the evidence provided by Reilly and believed she acted in good faith.
“The UN Human Rights Office should be the last entity engaged in this kind of thing. They should be the first ones to protect the dissidents, they should not be handing names to China,” Neuer said in an interview.
Yang Jianli, a Chinese dissident now based in the US who also serves on the board of UN Watch, had his attendance at Human Rights Council sessions confirmed to Chinese authorities in 2012, according to OHCHR emails seen by the Post.
He said he only learned of the practice in 2019, when Neuer informed him about Reilly’s case, and he said it was a “shocking” revelation. “We would never think the [Human Rights Office] would do things like this.”
Yang said China’s diplomats were becoming increasingly aggressive and he suspected Beijing may have been behind his barring from a Human Rights Council session in March this year, along with a Tibetan activist, over a technicality relating to their identification documents.
Yang said the activist was on a refugee travel document, while he had a US-issued travel document for green card holders not yet naturalised. “I have been in the UN building many times, I’ve never had that happen to me,” he said.
Isa from the World Uygur Congress said he was also evicted from UN meeting rooms by security several times in Geneva and in New York at the urging of the Chinese delegation.
Neuer from UN Watch expressed concern about China’s growing influence at the UN, especially at the Human Rights Council. China was re-elected to the council this year despite criticisms over its crackdowns in Xinjiang and imposition of a national security law in Hong Kong.
In April this year, China was appointed to a United Nations Human Rights Council panel, which plays a key role in picking the world’s monitors on human rights abuses.
“China will help, as one of five countries, to pick 17 different UN human rights experts, including on enforced disappearances and arbitrary detention,” said Neuer, noting such offences regularly occurred in China with little to no accountability.
Reilly, meantime, says she will continue to fight her appeals within the UN system, but added she was not especially hopeful.
In February this year, she said she had a brief meeting with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in the diplomatic lounge of Geneva airport. She said he told her it would be difficult to resolve her case. A spokesman for Guterres confirmed the meeting had taken place but did not say what had been discussed.
“It was very depressing. For what is a very simple case – should the UN Human Rights Office secretly hand names to China or not? – it’s become shockingly bureaucratic and complex.”