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.
Prime Minister Theresa May’s first official visit to China, which begins today, is billed as an opportunity to boost trade with an important ally. But it will also take place against the backdrop of the country’s violations of fundamental human rights, including freedom of religion or belief.
In the last month, Christians have been detained, and unregistered churches shut down or destroyed ahead of the implementation of revised Regulations on Religious Affairs, which strengthen state control over religious activities in China.
Unregistered churches, sometimes called house churches, are independent churches which have not registered with the state-sanctioned Three Self Patriotic Movement. The new regulations are due to come into force tomorrow, giving Mrs May a rare opportunity to speak directly to the Chinese government and publicly to reiterate the UK’s commitment to defending human rights.
“He was forced to take medicine. They stuffed the pills into his mouth… After taking the pills he felt pain in his muscles and his vision was blurred… He was beaten. He endured gruelling questioning while being denied sleep for days on end…”
Wang Qiaoling describing the torture of her husband, lawyer Li Heping
“Even our breaths were suppressed. No voices. No texts. No images. No talking. No walking. Our hands, feet, our posture…every body movement was strictly limited. We needed permission for even the most trivial action”.
Lawyer Zhao Wei, the youngest legal assistant detained in the 709 Crackdown
“Prisoners were also put in cages submerged mostly in water, and left inside for seven days, the entire body underwater with a space to breath at the top. As they stood in the water and tried to sleep, rats would scurry about outside the cage, biting their nose and ears.”
Letter to world leaders by ‘709’ Family Members
These are just a few accounts of the torture experienced by human rights lawyers in China. Over 300 lawyers, activists, colleagues and family members were detained, interrogated or disappeared in a sweeping crackdown beginning on 9 July 2015, dubbed the 709 Crackdown. Two years on, most have been released, some on “bail” conditions amounting to house arrest, but with news of their release have come numerous testimonies of physical and psychological torture including frequent beatings, sleep deprivation, forced medication, violent threats, and prolonged isolation.
Use of torture in China
Lawyers and activists are by no means the only victims of torture. Many of the lawyers caught up in the crackdown had defended clients who had been tortured by police or security agents, including those arrested in connection with their religion or belief such as Falun Gong practitioners and Christians associated with unregistered churches, as well as those accused of crimes not related to politics or religion.
Human rights lawyer, Li Heping (right) pictured with his brother Li Chunfu (left) following his release from detention.
Li Heping’s reunion with his family on 9 May 2017 was a moment for celebration; the celebration of an innocent man’s reunion with his long-suffering family and the celebration of the end of a period of torture, interrogation and imprisonment. But the joy of Li Heping’s reunion with his family is tempered by continuing concerns for his safety, and the injustice of his situation.
Who is Li Heping?
Li Heping is one of China’s most experienced and high profile human rights lawyers. He began working on sensitive cases around 2002 and is well known for defending the human rights of religious minorities, including Christians and Falun Gong practitioners, as well as activists and victims of torture.
His work on these cases led to a confrontation with the state. A Chinese security agent reportedly once told him that, in the eyes of Beijing, Li had become “more dangerous than Bin Laden”. In September 2007, Li was abducted, stripped and tortured by security forces. He then had his lawyers’ license revoked in 2009, and continued to be consistently monitored.
Moving from official commitments to tangible changes people’s lives remains a key challenge in the realisation of human rights. I am reminded of the wonderful quote from African-American civil rights campaigner, Philip Randolph, who said, “Freedom is never granted; it is won. Justice is never given; it is exacted.”
“Freedom is never granted; it is won. Justice is never given; it is exacted.” – Philip Randolph
This quote draws attention to the importance of promoting human rights while reminding us that very rarely do human rights “just happen”; they are regularly contested, challenged and often only progressed through the active work of individual human rights defenders (HRDs) and NGOs who promote and defend human rights through activities such as advocacy, campaigning, demonstrations, and human rights journalism – whether paid or unpaid and regardless of geographical location.
The right and responsibility to promote human rights – either individually or in association with others – is the cornerstone of all human rights work.
“There is almost complete denial of the right to freedom of thought conscience and religion as well as the right to freedom of opinion, expression, information and association.” That was the conclusion reached by the United Nations commission of inquiry into human rights in North Korea over two years ago. Indeed, the UN inquiry went further, noting that the regime in North Korea “considers the spread of Christianity a particularly severe threat” and as a result, “Christians are prohibited from practising their religion and are persecuted”. Severe punishments are inflicted on “people caught practising Christianity”.
Loyalty to the Regime is expected
Our new report – Total Denial: Violations of Freedom of Religion or Belief in North Korea – provides further evidence that freedom of religion or belief is a human right that is “largely non-existent” in the country. The ruling Kim dynasty is deified. Pictures of the three generations of dictators – Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong-Il and now Kim Jong-Un – are displayed in private homes and public spaces, cleaned daily and inspected regularly by the authorities to ensure they are in the best condition. Allowing one of these photographs to decay or gather dust is akin to a blasphemy. Anything less than total loyalty to the ruling family is severely punished.
Authorities remove cross from church in Zhejiang Province, China. Photo: Weibo, courtesy of ChinaChange.org
When leaders of the G20 nations arrive in Zhejiang Province, China, next week for the G20 summit, they will be greeted by a different skyline than they might have seen five years ago.
The sky scrapers and shopping malls that have become the hallmark of China’s phenomenal economic growth will still be there, but the bright red Christian crosses which were once just as much a feature of Zhejiang have been taken down.
Removal of crosses in Zhejiang Province
Hundreds of crosses have been removed by the authorities since early 2014, as part of a campaign allegedly introduced to rid the province of structures which violate building regulations. Under draft regulations, crosses now have to be flat against outer walls, and their size and colour are restricted. The authorities have sometimes employed violent tactics in the face of protests by church members. Christian leaders who have opposed the cross removals through letters or peaceful gatherings have been arrested and accused of economic crimes.
It may be no coincidence that the site of the cross removal campaign is the same province selected to host the G20.
It has been a year since over 300 human rights lawyers, activists, as well as those connected to them (including their friends and family), were detained by the Chinese government. That’s equivalent to one person harassed or disappeared every day since last July. Some of these lawyers have since vanished into China’s prison system. Others were released, but have lived with the threat of re-arrest hanging over them ever since.
For the lawyers that are left, what remains of their lives and careers? Read our story of Li Jing, a young lawyer watching the events of the July crackdown unfold around her.
This composite case study is constructed from real accounts. Similar things have happened, but we have changed the details.
Click here to read the story
Saturday 4 June will mark 27 years since the Tiananmen Square Massacre, also referred to as the Tiananmen Square Protests, or simply the June Fourth Incident. On 3 June 1989, Chinese army tanks rolled into Beijing’s famous square and began to fire at unarmed protesters who had been camping out there for weeks to call for democratic reform. Students, workers and bystanders were shot down by their own “people’s army”, at the command of their country’s leaders. Estimates of the number of people killed range from hundreds to several thousand. More deaths followed as workers were tried and executed for their part in the protests.
Tiananmen as a turning point
The protesters were not calling explicitly for the right to freedom of religion or belief. Yet the massacre had a significant impact on some of the most prominent defenders of religious freedom in China today. A disproportionate number of human rights lawyers in China are Christian, and many veteran lawyers say that June Fourth had a profound effect on their personal journey towards both the Christian faith and the defence of human rights. Christian activists living outside China, and influential pastors inside, also refer to 1989 as a personal turning point. The intervening 27 years have seen rapid growth in the Protestant church; as some space opened up for religious activities, the church grew in leaps and bounds both in terms of size and visibility. Part of the reason was a rising curiosity among the urban young, not only about Christianity but about religion, belief and spirituality more broadly. Religion has also played an important and visible role in charity work and in some cases addressing social injustices.
In October 2014, the Chinese Communist Party announced that rule of law would be a top priority for the country. However, just one year later, over 150 lawyers and 150 more colleagues, family members and other activists had been questioned, detained, or disappeared in a crackdown which began on 9 July 2015.
Journalists and legal experts have speculated about what ‘strengthening rule of law’ might mean for China’s ruling Party: whatever it means, it doesn’t seem to include rights lawyers.