Whistleblower accuses UN human rights office of helping China keep an eye on dissidents

WION New Delhi, Delhi, India May 27, 2020, 11.41 PM(IST) Written By: Praphul Singh

Emma Reilly Photograph:( WION )

Story highlights

Emma Reilly, a UN employee who first alleged the practice in 2013, said, "One of the first issues we had to deal with was a request from China to know whether specific individuals were planning to attend the session. I have received a similar request before and the answer has always been NO."

A United Nations whistleblower in an exclusive conversation with WION accused the UN Human Rights office of secretly providing the Chinese government names of activists critical of the Communist Party of China and their atrocities.

Emma Reilly, a UN employee who first found about the practice in 2013, said, "One of the first issues we had to deal with was a request from China to know whether specific individuals were planning to attend the session. I had received a similar request before and the answer has always been NO."

She added she thought it would never happen. 

"The policy, the practice was very clear that its member states wanted to know about specific individuals, they have to ask in front of all member states. It wasn’t something that they could get secret advance information from the UN administration. The outcome of those emails was a decision by the Chief of Branch, Human Rights Council that names should be handed to China and only China," she said.

Also read | How China forced UNHRC to hand out names of activists

Reilly also shared an attachment of an email that showed the names being handed over to the Chinese Representative to UN on his request to the Switzerland-based Human Rights office. The email stated names of two of the prominent Chinese activists, who were planning to attend the human rights session that year.

According to Reilly, China's request for the names was granted even though a similar bid for information from Turkey was reportedly denied.

Jeremy Laurence, Media Officer of UNHCR in a written response to WION said, "I can assure you that the safety of persons participating in sessions of the Human Rights Council is a paramount concern for OHCHR. Given pending litigation in relation to this issue, we would be precluded from further comment at this time.

To this end, UN, in reply to WION, said, "We can assure you that the safety of persons participating in sessions of the Human Rights Council is a paramount concern for OHCHR. Given pending litigation in relation to this issue, we would be precluded from further comment at this time."

Meanwhile, here's the exclusive conversation of Praphul Singh from WION with Emma Reilly -- verbatim. She spilt the beans for China and the United Nations Human Right Council's secret understanding:

WION: When did you first learn about the fact that the UN Human Rights Office was handing over the names of activists from China to the Chinese Govt?

EMMA: The first I learned about the practice was in 2013. I had just taken over the function at the Human Rights Council Branch responsible for liaison. One of the first issues we had to deal with was a request from China to know whether specific individuals were planning to attend the session. I have received a similar request before and the answer has always been, NO. at that point of time, a lot of emails went back n forth from senior managers at the UN Human Rights Council debating whether or not China would be provided with specific information. I honestly thought it would never happen. The policy, the practice was very clear that its member states wanted to know about specific individuals, they have to ask in front of all member states. It wasn’t something that they could get secret advance information from the UN administration. The outcome of those emails was a decision by the Chief of Branch, Human Rights Council that names should be handed to China and only China. I later discovered that all of those emails in 2013 were sent for my benefit because names were already being handed over. Probably since the outset of the council but at least in 2012.

WION: Is this normal for lists of activists to be given to respective countries by the UN Human Rights Council?

EMMA: No, it isn’t normal practice. There is a very clear rule of the Human Rights Council that says it should not happen. It says very clearly that if the member states want to know that how someone can as accredited to which NGO they work for, they have to ask in the plenary of Human Rights Council in front of all other member states. It’s clearly against the rule of the UN itself to secretly continuous information to China and every other member state who asked was refused.

WION: Why do you think China was able to make the cut and the information they needed? Was it because it is a powerful member state and the UN didn't want to antagonise China?

EMMA: I think so. I think because China is a powerful nation.

WION: What was your first reaction to the fact? What did you do? Did you raise it to the higher authorities at UNHCR?

EMMA: I was shocked! I pointed out that there was no good reason for a member state to be asking this information and being handed over secretly. We knew already that people coming from China and people whose families were in China faced repression for speaking against China’s human rights record. We knew what the outcome of this was. The only reason China could be wanting this information was to intimidate them and their family members. This seemed to be opposite to the mandate of the UN Human Rights Council to actively save activists from being in danger. This wasn’t the case of them coming to Human Rights Council and then China taking the reprisal, this is the case of UN Human Rights actively facilitating China trying time prevent people from coming to the UN to speak out. It was the opposite of what we should be doing.

I reported the same to the manager who ordered it, I reported it to his senior, I reported it to the then high commissioner of human rights. When not being successful, I reported it to the UNs internal authority called OIOS. I also reported it to the head of management. And none of them did anything, it has never faced any investigation.

WION: What did the Chinese Govt do after activists names being handed over to them? 

EMMA: Some of the people whose names were handed over have also given written testimony in my case. The described the Chinese govt attending their homes in China, forcing their family members to phone them, to try to persuade them not to appear. In some cases, they were holding the mobile numbers that they haven’t shared with their family members for their safety. In some cases, family members were being arbitrarily arrested, detained, tortured and even died in detention, particularly in concentration camps in China. 

WION: Can you list out the names of the activists whose names were handed over and what kind of threats or actions did they or their family members faced?

EMMA: Dolkun Isa, the head of the world Uyghur congress. His family was forced to call him, his brother was arbitrarily arrested and disappeared and both of his parents have died in the concentration camps. Geng He wife of Gao Zhisheng, a Chinese human rights attorney was another name revealed to China. The time her name was handed over her, the husband was in detention in China. Nobody knew where he was. On one hand, you had independent working group sending a letter to China asking where he was and on the other hand you had UN administration secretly providing China information that his wife was coming to speak out in the session.

WION: Finally what did you do to expose the UN and the malpractice in its Human Rights office?

EMMA: You cannot sue the UN because the UN has diplomatic immunity. So the only way of taking the UN to the court about this was me to complain about the breach of my employment rights. So, I have complained about the UN publicly defaming me. They have repeatedly lied about the practice publicly. For example, the Dutch govt was giving an award to Former High Commissioner of Human Rights and they were asking some questions about the treatment of whistleblowers. The UN lied to the Dutch govt about the names being handed over and I was able to force the correction with the Dutch parliament. The Dutch parliament later clarified that the names were handed over.