China: Increased engagement at Human Rights Council calls for increased responsibility, scrutiny


An ISHR analysis of China's engagement with the last session of the UN Human Rights Council demonstrates that the State is increasingly using multilateral fora to advance perceived national interests, while simultaneously stepping up the crackdown on civil society actors who engage these mechanisms or express dissenting views at home.

UN Photo/Loey Felipe - Xi Jinping addresses UNGA, September 2015

In light of China’s growing role at the UN Human Rights Council, ISHR began a new effort to document China’s engagement at each of the sessions. You can see the first analysis from the June 2015 Human Rights Council session hereIt is hoped that, moving forward, this will provide both an overview of China’s contributions to the UN human rights mechanisms, in particular the Council, as well as an independent perspective on the human rights situation in the country. ISHR welcomes feedback on this reporting, including areas for focus and examples of follow-up.

Increased enagement but gap between international human rights rhetoric and national-level human rights reality remains

China continued its trend of increased engagement at the Human Rights Council during its 30th session in September 2015. The country made 36 statements, tracking with the 35 it presented during the 29th session. Twenty of these statements were on country-specific topics, either during the UPR adoption or various Interactive Dialogues under Items 4 and 10. The delegation engaged actively in informal negotiation of resolutions, and worked to advance a Presidential Statement which was adopted by the Council.

Delegation statements articulated an openness to constructive dialogue and cooperation in areas of technical assistance, and the promotion of economic, social and cultural rights and the right to development. Also unchanged was the consistent reminder in official statements that in the context of the protection of human rights the principles of 'non-interference in internal affairs' and 'territorial integrity' were essential. Of interest was the delegation’s approach to counter-terrorism efforts, and the Special Rapporteur’s subsequent offer of dialogue in that regard. The government passed a controversial Anti-Terrorism Law in late December 2015 which made minimal concessions to concerns of civil society and risks significant infringement on freedom of expression and religious belief.

While China’s increased interaction at the Council could be perceived to demonstrate a more mature approach to the international human rights mechanisms, its contributions to country-specific debates often lack substance, are overly hortatory, or – on key thematic areas – directly contradict their actions in respect of the domestic human rights situation. A selection of these thematic issues are expanded upon in greater detail below.

Arbitrary detention

High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein noted the widespread crackdown on, and arrest and detention of, Chinese human rights lawyers and defenders in his opening statement at the Human Rights Council, as did a number of international NGOs speaking during the General Debate, including ISHR.

The Chinese delegation requested time for a ‘right of reply’ which they used to refute these criticisms, deeming them ‘unfounded accusations’ and claiming that ‘some people try to use the legal system as a platform to disrupt social order and even create social turmoil and bloodshed’. Regarding access to justice for those unjustly detained, the delegation said only that ‘China’s Public Security organ is investigating these cases’. The delegation concluded by stating that they had provided elaboration concerning the death of Cao Shunli and added that ‘Cao Shunli is by no means a human rights defender’ and that the case is ‘by no means an issue of human rights, but rather an issue concerning rule of law and China’s judicial sovereignty and independence’. Cao Shunli’s case is a major one of reprisal against a defender seeking to engage in the Council.

China further stated in their interactive dialogue with the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention that it opposed the illegal use of detention and the deprivation or limitation of personal liberties afforded under the Chinese Constitution. They highlighted the abolition of ‘re-education through labor’; noted the existence of ‘specialised laws’ that ‘strictly regulate the scope of application of detention’; and emphasised its efforts in working towards the ‘prevention of false charges and miscarriages of justice’.

In the months both before and after the Council session, the situation on the ground continues to be one of astounding risks for defenders and near-total impunity for government actors. In January 2016, after six months in ‘residential surveillance in a designated location’, nineteen of those detained face formal criminal charges, many of them ‘subversion of state power’ or ‘incitement to subversion’ which carry excessive jail sentences.  

The number of delegations making Item 4 statements that noted the human rights situation in China increased over the previous session. In certain cases, in particular the United States, the UK, Switzerland, and Germany, the timley substance of the statements also clearly reflected concerns with the recent crackdown on human rights lawyers and defenders, and with problematic draft legislation on counterterrorism and NGOs. 

Public health and capacity-building

At the 30th session, the Council adopted a Presidential Statement promoting ‘the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health by enhancing capacity-building in public health against pandemics’ (A/HRC/PRST/30/2). This statement was primarily drafted, and negotiations organised, by an active Chinese delegation. The statement emphasises the need for ‘intensified efforts to ensure universal respect for and the promotion, protection and fulfilment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms’ in countries’ fight against epidemics. It also explicitly recognises ‘the values and principles of primary health care, including… community participation and empowerment’ and ‘the vital and complementary role of civil society in responding to pandemics’.

Domestically, China has in recent years placed more pressure on civil society organisation who play a role in the fight against epidemics or who seek to fill gaps in public health policies and services. Severe funding limits and registration requirements have been placed on NGOs focusing on health issues, in particular ‘sensitive’ issues like HIV/AIDS, including NGOs such as Beijing Aizhixing or the non-discrimination NGO Yirenping. This often results in their collapse due to lack of finances or undue pressure on staff, or their forced closure by government authorities.

Outspoken HIV/AIDS activists have faced reprisals in the form of arbitrary detention and travel bans. Akbar Imin, a Uighur HIV/AIDS activist was detained last year for ‘endangering state security’ and has been kept in an unknown location ever since, while prominent HIV/AIDS activists Gao Yaojie and Wan Yanhai both fled China in recent years to escape persecution from the government. A panel discussion during the Council’s 31st session on ‘the progress and challenges in addressing human rights issues in the context of efforts to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic’ will be a key time in which to judge China’s true commitment to acknowledging the role of civil society in the realisation of the right to health and other economic, social and cultural rights.

Torture/ the death penalty

Amendments to China’s Criminal Law adopted in August 2015 scaled back the scope of the death penalty, removing nine crimes - including some related to prostitution, smuggling, and ‘spreading rumours and disinformation during wartime’ - from being subject to capital punishment. UN experts noted these positive changes in a press release, but cautioned that China should ‘take further steps’; China has not responded to the most recent request by the Special Rapporteur on torture to visit the country, made on 2 November 2015. 

The resolution ‘The question of the death penalty’ (A/HRC/30/5) passed during the 30th Council session, recalling the human rights issues surrounding capital punishment and urging States to take steps towards abolishing the death penalty. This resolution was staunchly opposed by China, among several other States still supporting the death penalty – including the United States and Japan. China put forth an amendment to remove the paragraph stating that ‘The use of the death penalty leads to violations of the human rights of the persons facing the death penalty and of other affected persons’. Although China eventually withdrew this amendment and the resolution passed as written, this constituted a clear attempt to limit the so-called ‘interference’ of the Council with national laws.

Concern for the death penalty was echoed in China’s review by the UN Committee against Torture in November 2015, when the death penalty was raised along with a host of other concerns including forced conversion therapy, infringements on the rights of lawyers, refoulement of refugees, and ongoing absence of data regarding convictions of officials for the use of torture to extract confessions.

The Chinese delegation used their speaking time before the Committee against Torture to repeat information and legislation already provided, or categorically denied the allegations presented by the Committee. As with their approach to questions about the crackdown on defenders raised during the Council, substantive responses to alleged violations and individual cases were markedly absent. The Concluding Observations of the Committee, released on December 9, called for the Chinese government to provide a written update on implementation of key recommendations, including those related to the crackdown on human rights lawyers and defenders; abuse of State Secrets legislation; and violations of due process and access to counsel.

Engagement on human rights issues at the UN in New York

China’s influence is also being felt at the General Assembly where, along with Russia, it attempted to block, for the first time, the consensus adoption of the biannual resolution on human rights defenders. Certain members of the Africa Group, with the support of other countries, proposed numerous amendments that would have seriously undermined the efficacy of the resolution. Although these amendments were ultimately dropped, a number of compromises were made in the text. China and Russia called for a vote anyway. The resolution was ultimately adopted by the General Assembly’s Third Committee with over 100 ‘yes’ votes and just 14 ‘no’ votes, with China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and North Korea among the few States opposing the resolution. Although the resolution was again voted in the UNGA plenary, and China again voted no, the number of States supporting the resolution increased and the resolution was adopted. 

Ahead of the vote, China explained that it had ‘no choice’ but to vote against it as 'certain western countries' use the protection of defenders as an excuse to 'interfere in the internal affairs of developing countries and disrupt their social stability'.

While China’s engagement with the Human Rights Council and other UN mechanisms has undoubtedly increased dramatically, its interactions are rarely substantive and often in contradiction to the policies it undertakes on the ground. China must be held accountable to its commitments at the Human Rights Council, in particular as it is a Council Member, and the international community should keep a wary eye on the gap between human rights rhetoric and reality. 

For more information, contact Sarah M. Brooks, Asia programme manager at ISHR at s.brooks[at] 


  • Asia
  • Human rights defenders
  • United Nations
  • Committee against Torture (CAT)
  • Special Procedures of the UN Human Rights Council
  • UN Human Rights Council
  • China
  • Germany
  • United States