“My family, relatives, friends and dozens of innocent people [I know] have been arrested since April 2017. I have no knowledge of how many more of our relatives have been arrested as we lost contact with them at the beginning of the year. They have not committed any crime… They are ordinary people… since then I have not heard from them and I am unsure about their safety.”
– Chinese Uyghur living overseas.
Faith groups in China are currently experiencing the most severe crackdown on religious freedom and human rights in decades. One of the worst sites of this crackdown is the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), where recent reports estimate that as many as three million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and members of other ethnic groups have been detained in political re-education camps without charge.
Ethnicity appears to be the principle driver of these detentions, however there is also a significant religious element. The majority of detainees are Muslim, and reasons for detention – when a reason is given – have often been connected to the practice of peaceful religious activities such as participating in communal religious services or accessing religious materials online.
The religious element is further demonstrated by the treatment of Muslims inside the camps. Witnesses report that detainees have been forced to renounce Islam and promise not to follow religion. Prisoners have also been forced to eat pork or drink alcohol, which goes against their religious beliefs.
Recently, CSW raised concerns regarding the diminishing scrutiny of Sudan’s human rights record at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). The situation in the country is currently considered under agenda item 10, but CSW, along with many Sudanese and international civil society organisations, has repeatedly argued that the present situation is sufficiently serious to merit consideration under agenda item 4.
For many, the importance and even the content of these agenda items is likely to be unclear, yet the differences are crucial in determining the extent to which important human rights situations are scrutinised.
Save North Korean Refugees Day, which falls on 24 September, aims to highlight the terrible trials faced by North Korean refugees in China.
It also marks the day, 36 years ago, that China became a signatory to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, an agreement the country continues to violate through its treatment of North Korean escapees.
China’s forced repatriation of North Korean refugees is illegal as it violates the fundamental international humanitarian principle of ‘non-refoulement’, which prohibits receiving countries from returning refugees to a country where they would likely face persecution due to their “race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”.
And yet, that is exactly what they are being sent back to: North Korea is one of the world’s most repressive regimes, referred to by the 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry as “a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world” in terms of human rights violations. CSW’s 2016 report previously revealed that deported escapees regularly face execution, torture, arbitrary detention, deliberate starvation, illegal cavity searches, forced abortions, and other sexual violence at the hands of the North Korean authorities.
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 describingthe 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.”
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.
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.
“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.