The UN Belongs to All of Us: Chinese Prisoners of Conscience Speak Out

Welcome to the United Nations. It’s your world.

Until recently, when you accessed the United Nations (UN) website, these words would appear. They’re still used on some webpages, and the sentiment behind them still stands.

The UN is often the subject of criticism, and its flaws are well-documented, yet it remains one of the most important arenas for raising human rights concerns, including the right to freedom of religion or belief.

Three times a year, in Geneva, Switzerland, the UN Human Rights Council comes together and UN staff, member state delegations and non-governmental Organisations (NGOs) all rub shoulders in meetings, formal sessions and – frequently – impromptu chats over coffee and in canteen queues.

On the agenda are some of the most serious human rights situations in the world.

This is also an opportunity for NGOs like Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) to organise side events running parallel to discussions at the Council, where victims of human rights violations, as well as experts and activists, can present their cases in an open forum. In March 2018, CSW hosted one of its first side events at the UN Human Rights Council since obtaining ECOSOC Consultative Status: an opportunity to discuss some of the most severe and complex challenges to religious communities in China.

UN Side Event on Challenges to Religious Communities in China

As I met with colleagues to finalise arrangements for the event, our panel of speakers began to arrive. They included Tibetan monk and activist, Jigme Gyatso, who was arrested and tortured for making a film about the lives and opinions of ordinary Tibetan people which shone a light on the oppression they face under the Chinese authorities.

Then there was Annie Yang, a businesswoman from Beijing given two years in a labour camp and tortured for her belief in the spiritual exercise Falun Gong.

Dr Eva Pils of King’s College London, one of the world’s leading experts on human rights lawyers in China, came to tell us about the harassment, detention and disappearance of lawyers who defend the right to freedom of religion or belief.

The wife of Pastor Su Tianfu of Living Stone Church joined us via an online conference call: Pastor Su is currently under house arrest and his co-pastor, Yang Hua, is in prison. Living Stone Church has experienced years of harassment and intimidation by local authorities who want to force the church to close, and is one of CSW’s key cases. We never miss an opportunity to raise this case in our advocacy meetings, and it was great to hear first-hand from a church member at this event.

We wanted to include as many religious communities as possible, to show just how many believers are suffering as a result of religious freedom restrictions in China. It was impossible to hear from speakers from every community, so we also included written statements from groups advocating for Uyghur Muslims and Chinese Catholics.

“[In Xinjiang] We have witnessed a much greater emphasis on limiting expression online, as a number of cases illustrate that the mere mention of Islam may be punishable with long jail terms…”

Peter Irwin

Project Manager & Researcher at World Uyghur Congress

Personal Testimonies Challenge the Narrative Promoted by the Chinese Authorities

Undoubtedly, the Chinese authorities would not have been happy about our event. The government and state media continue to slam reports of human rights violations by NGOs, legal experts and foreign governments. At the UN, Chinese government representatives are quick to dismiss and shout down any mention of human rights abuses in China, and more generally China has attempted to undermine mechanisms which promote accountability and criticism of violations at the Human Rights Council.

During the Q and A, one representative from the Chinese delegation put forward that freedom of religion is protected in China’s Constitution and laws; as the speakers quickly pointed out, however, the legal provisions fall short of international standards, and some legal rules in fact provide a basis for infringements of religious freedom. Additionally, their personal experiences clearly show that there is a vast gap between the law and the reality. Freedom of religion or belief is not protected in China, and some people have the scars to prove it.

“We hope that the international community will extend support to China’s persecuted family churches, urge the Chinese government to abide by the human rights conventions it has signed up to, and stop the persecution of Christian house churches.”

Pastor Su Tianfu of Living Stone Church

Government officials sometimes tell the international community that reports of human rights violations are part of a plot by foreign forces to smear China’s international reputation: they tell us to listen to the voices of Chinese people, not foreigners.

This March, the event in Geneva did just that, by giving the floor to a group of extraordinary Chinese people. They have just as much right to speak as member state delegates, and their stories and voices are essential to the promotion of religious freedom today. After all, the UN belongs to all of us.

By CSW’s China Desk Officer