“I was a human rights officer. My job is literally to stop human rights abuses. I consider genocide to be one of the worst human rights abuses. I was trying to stop the UN from being complicit in that.” Emma Reilly, November 13, 2021
UN human rights lawyer Emma Reilly first spoke up eight years ago, informing her superiors that officials at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) had for years been providing China’s government with the names of government opponents who applied to attend Human Rights Council meetings and those of treaty bodies, placing their lives and the lives of their families in China at risk. On October 21, 2021, she wrote to senior diplomats and members of Congress that, “The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) apparently continues to provide China with advance information on whether named human rights defenders plan to attend meetings” in Geneva.”
On November 10, 2021, she was fired by the UN.
The story of Reilly’s attempt to protect dissidents and their families in China from possible arrest, torture and imprisonment is complex. The Council initially denied that it regularly gave information to China, then acknowledged that she was correct, they had. However, according to the UN, Reilly had broken the rules by going outside the UN with her complaint.
There are mountains of evidence that China has oppressed its Uyghur and Kazakh citizens, made major cities and villages alike a dystopian nightmare through constant surveillance, built a massive detention camp system where torture and psychological abuse is rampant and where they have imprisoned over a million people, torn apart hundreds of thousands of families and taken their children into custody – and that any communication with the world outside China is sufficient grounds for arrest or detention. The greatest possible offense, in the eyes of China’s government, is to do what the people Reilly was trying to protect did – ask to participate in a public hearing in an international forum on human rights abuses and crimes against humanity perpetrated by China’s government.
The UN Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights is the proper forum to address human rights violations. But the UN was clearly reluctant to offend China, a powerful UN member and major contributor with a seat on the Human Rights Council since 2020. There is a plausible argument that it is better to have a human rights abuser within the group, where it may be influenced toward better behavior, than to publicly shame it.
Whether you agree with this argument or not, one result of not challenging China’s behavior is that its horrific abuses against its own citizens continue, without UN opposition. In general the UN – and not only in the case of China – has become less willing to engage in multilateral discussions on sensitive issues or to be critical of nation states’ persecutions of their own citizens, whether they are politically, ethnically or religiously based.The failure of the UN to protect Ms. Reilly’s status as a whistleblower has raised other concerns. What protections exist for individuals who are unable to get superiors to recognize illegal or unethical behavior within UN organizations? On August 16, 2021, the Whistleblowing International Network, a group of more than 30 whistleblower and anti-corruption groups around the world, issued an Open Letter to United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres stating that the UN response to Ms. Reilly’s actions was “a trap for UN staff, causing them to suffer needlessly for doing the right thing and ending their careers.” (Open Letter, p 5)
According to the Whistleblowing International Network, “nearly a full year after the Alternate Chair of the Ethics Panel found that Ms. Reilly had blown the whistle on potentially serious violations of human rights and had suffered retaliation for doing so, she was informed on 4th June 2021 that this decision was ‘defective’ and that a new Alternate Chair would review her complaint de novo.”
The allegedly “defective” decision of the Chair of the Ethics Panel was that Ms. Reilly:
“…was interested in human rights and protection of human rights activists. OHCHR was, by virtue of the Complainant’s whistleblowing, placed in a very awkward diplomatic position by a human rights issue that it struggled to handle well. A whistleblower’s reporting of such a practice, which was contrary to fundamental UN principles and values, is exactly the sort of activity that must be protected; it is far more important than minor infractions of bureaucratic rules, which the system finds it much more easy to classify as protected.”
The decision had also stated:
“Retaliation has been constant since 2013, and continues now, and will continue into the future if something is not done.”
The Whistleblowing International Network’s Open Letter requested an “independent investigation into OHCHR policies, and whether any risk of harmful practice continues.” Their report also noted that there had yet to be a single example of a UN employee whistleblowing “dangerous misconduct” within the organization without suffering a blow to their careers. Apart from the consequences suffered by whistleblowers such as Ms. Reilly, the group stated that this situation “carries a huge risk for the UN as it stops others from speaking up when they should.”
Nonetheless, the UN retrospectively removed Reilly’s protected whistleblower status on July 30, then issued a disciplinary notice accusing her of misconduct for having issued external communications without authorization, and then fired her in November. The UN did not accuse her of lying. Instead, she was accused of negatively impacting the reputation of the UN.
Reilly told Maajid Nawaz in a November 13, 2021 interview at LBC, Leading Britain’s Conversation:
“I am not the victim here. The victims are the people whose names are handed over and whose family members are tortured by the Chinese government as a result.
“Instead of doing anything to investigate or correct the policy and stop handing over peoples’ names, the UN decided to go into attack mode against me.
“The UN tried various things. They informally approached my lawyer and offered me a large sum of money if I would sign a nondisclosure agreement.
“When I took them to [the UN] court and a judge was about to rule in my favor, the UN took the extraordinary measure of removing a judge from one day to the next… He had published his judgement in one [of my three cases], in which he stated that Antonio Guterres, the Secretary General himself, had unilaterally decided to not apply UN rules in my case… he was going to reveal this policy in a judgment in another case because in court, the UN admits it completely. It said it’s unreasonable for me to think there’s a problem. The UN told him not to come to work the next day.”
In her interview with Maajid Nawaz, Reilly says that the UN had only one meeting this year about the Uyghurs’ situation, on May 12th, the first it has ever had. Reilly said that she had registered her participation and planned to take the floor to speak remotely. Five minutes into the meeting, Swiss police officers knocked on her door in a “Swatting” event. The police told her that the High Commission for Human Rights had informed them that she was a danger to herself. By the time she finished explaining that she was fine, the meeting was over and she had missed her opportunity to speak. She filed a police report about the incident but the UN and the people who work for it have diplomatic immunity.
When Reilly was dismissed from her job at the UN in consequence of her whistleblower actions, she told Ben Evansky of Fox News;
“The U.N. accuses me only of disobeying an order to be silent. I am not accused of lying. I had a duty as a human being, let alone as a Human Rights Officer, to tell the press when telling my superiors and governments had no impact. To be silent in the face of genocide is to stand with the oppressor. I will leave that to the Secretary-General and the High Commissioner for Human Rights.”
Reilly explained the process in which names of dissidents were released in an interview with Radio Free Asia reporter Nuriman Adburrashid:
“The Chinese delegation always talks about it as being a favor. They know they have absolutely no right to have this information, but they ask for this favor, and then the U.N. replies and does the favor. They ask about specific people. The number of people on the list varies sometimes. There are about 20 or 25 people. And then the U.N. will tell them that these people will be coming. Of course, they send Chinese police to their homes. They arrest them. They put their families in concentration camps. They disappear people. They torture people. And they have them phone their family members. Why on earth is the U.N. human rights office doing this?”
Reilly has stated that she has evidence that the practice had been going on since before 2013 and that most recently, in 2020, the UN’s Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights gave names to China.
Reilly says that not only was she fired for doing her job, but that:
“This is the U.N. policy that everyone’s going along with — that we make an exception for China because China wants this information and people want an easy life or money. I don’t know why they’re doing this. I don’t think it will go away as easily as they think it might.
“I certainly plan to take it to national jurisdiction. There’s no point in taking court cases against the U.N. to the U.N. court. In my case, they fired a judge. That’s the kind of thing that really happens in a totalitarian society. That shouldn’t be happening in the U.N.”
Reilly advised that persons who wanted to give testimony regarding China to the UNHCR should still testify, because it is crucial that information reach UN fora, but they should not apply to speak directly through the secretariat. Instead they should try to contact the members of the committee and the members of the working group and the special rapporteurs directly. She stated: “There’s no reason to believe that any of them are involved in this. The ones I met were always quite shocked when I told them about this. You can generally write to them directly.”
The Spokesperson for the UN Secretary General was asked on November 10, 2021, the day Reilly was fired, if the UN was in the business of firing whistle-blowers and helping China with suppressing dissidents. He responded;
“No is the short answer…As we have said many times from here, Ms. Reilly is not recognised as a whistle-blower in the matters that she raised. We do have a very robust framework to protect people from retaliation, and we continue to uphold that framework.
“And as to the issues that she has raised, I think they’ve been addressed many times by our colleagues in Geneva at OHCHR [UN Human Rights Office], and they relate to a discontinued historical practice, I think, where the names of participants that were occasionally confirmed to States in limited circumstances and with care that, to ensure that no action of OHCHR would endanger any human rights activists. And that very limited practice, which again, I think, did not, did not endanger the lives of human rights activists, was suspended six years ago, in 2015.”
Question: “Can you explain to us why she was fired?”
Spokesman: “I’m not going… well, what I can tell you is that, obviously, all staff members are obliged to comply with the staff regulations of rules, and we have exhaustively followed all appropriate procedures to handle the complaints filed by Ms. Reilly.”
Reilly insisted that she would continue to fight to stop a practice that is putting peoples’ lives and their families’ lives at risk:
“It’s up to the member states to finally do something, to finally exercise oversight with the U.N., to finally hold responsible the people who are handing over [names], and to finally do an investigation as to the extent of it. Imagine for a second if their current story was true, [that they stopped doing this] in 2015. Even if that were true, we basically have the U.N. on the record saying, ‘Yes, we handed over people’s names for over a decade, but we’re not going to hold anyone responsible for that. We’re not going to do any kind of investigation as to why.”
“Complicity in genocide is not an employment issue,” Reilly says.
Unconscionable delays at UN and a ‘diplomatic’ response.
At least three years after it became indisputably clear that China’s government was placing large numbers of Uyghur citizens in concentration camp-style detention centers for “crimes” that were not crimes at all, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is “almost” ready to say that there are “credible reports” that abuses are taking place in Xinjiang.
On December 11, 2021 the office of High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet said it hoped to publish its report within a few weeks, since there had been “no progress” in talks with Chinese officials regarding Ms. Bachelet’s request to visit the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Republic (XUAR).
It’s taken a long while for the UN’s Human Rights Office to get even this far. China’s “Strike Hard Campaign Against Violent Extremism” officially began in 2014, giving President Xi Jinping’s official sanction to extreme discrimination and brutal abuse of a civilian population.
Few nations have been willing to criticize China’s brutal treatment of Uyghurs at all. Only 43 mostly Western nations issued a critical statement at the UN in late October 2021, citing “credible reports” that abuses were taking place and urging that independent monitors be allowed into Xinjiang. This is only the third statement made at the UN Human Rights Committee meetings criticizing China. (In 2019, only 23 nations were willing to sign a joint statement condemning large-scale arbitrary detention.)
According to Human Rights Watch, China sent a letter to ambassadors in Geneva warning them that “in the interest of our bilateral relations and continued multilateral cooperation,” they should not “co-sponsor, participate in or be present at” a panel event on March 13, 2019 on human rights violations in Xinjiang, hosted by the United States, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. In addition, some delegates from the global South told Human Rights Watch that Chinese diplomats had personally approached them and warned them not to attend the event. Delegates told Human Rights Watch that China’s attempts to distort the record included:
- Providing blatantly false or misleading responses on violations of religious freedom and mass detention centers,
- Warning delegations that criticism would have negative consequences for bilateral relationships,
- Pressuring Islamic member states to commend China for treatment of its Muslim citizens,
- Attempting to block accreditation of Uyghur activist Dolkun Isa, president of the World Uyghur Congress (WUC), and publicly calling him and another panelist a “terrorist”, “ominously citing details of the whereabouts of his family members,” and silencing speakers from NGOs. Despite having full accreditation, Isa was told to leave by UN security after one meeting and denied re-entry when the forum resumed.
For his part, Dolkun Isa expressed gratitude to countries that condemned China’s repression in Xinjiang and called for UN access to the region. “Sadly, there have been many countries that are not speaking out on Uyghur genocide due to Chinese pressure or economic relations with China,” he told RFA. “Some are even shamelessly supporting and defending China’s ongoing genocide.”
A statement on the website of China’s permanent mission to the UN responded to the condemnation by saying it was an attempt by the US and other countries to politicize and manipulate human rights issues, noting that more than 80 countries had made statements to support China.