China: Increasing engagement with Human Rights Council must be matched by respect for civil society at home


China is becoming increasingly active and engaged at the UN Human Rights Council while simultaneously and systematically working to silence human rights defenders and civil society dissent at home, reports ISHR's East Asia Programme Manager Sarah M Brooks.

In light of China’s increasing engagement with the UN Human Rights Council, ISHR is beginning a new effort to document and analyse China’s positions and initiatives at each Council session. It is envisaged that, moving forward, this will provide both a holistic view of China’s contributions to the UN human rights mechanisms, in particular the Council, as well as a perspective on the human rights situation in the country. ISHR welcomes feedback on this reporting, including areas for focus and examples of follow-up.

(Geneva) - When China rejoined the Human Rights Council in 2014, it did so having made a number of commitments to uphold international human rights. In its membership pledge of 5 June 2013, presented to the then president of the UN General Assembly, China detailed its history of cooperating with UN human rights mechanisms and engaging ‘constructively’ in the Human Rights Council. This came at a time when China was becoming more active on a range of international law issues globally, including in relation to issues such as climate change, development assistance, internet freedom, and often contentious negotiations in the maritime arena. 

At the 29th session of the Human Rights Council in June 2015, ISHR notes that China made (or prepared) 35 discrete, formal interventions, compared to 26 such statements a year earlier. These included interventions on country-specific situations – notably, Syria, Eritrea and Belarus – as well as thematic issues covered by Special Procedures mandateholders and panel discussions on terrorism and human rights and on violence against women. The actions of China at the Council come against the backdrop of an increasing crackdown on civil society and dissenting voices domestically in a number of areas. China's positions internationally and domestically on some of these issues are discussed in further detail below.

Women’s human rights

In its preparations for the twentieth anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, the Chinese government led initiatives to organise a joint statement at the March session of the HRC, and to co-sponsor a side event with a cross-regional group in June. China made strong statements in this regard, including delivering a joint statement on behalf of a group of states at the annual panel discussion on the human rights of women, highlighting the need to combat violence against women in the post-2015 agenda and in the Bejing+20 documents.

However, despite strong rhetorical support for women’s rights, China has not implemented recommendations made by the Working Group on Discrimination against Women and its Causes and Consequences, and it prevented individuals hoping to engage in the CEDAW review in November 2014 from participating in the review in Geneva, leading the Committee to express serious concern about the incidence of reprisals against women defenders. China’s lack of respect for women’s rights domestically was best illustrated by the detention for 37 days of five women human rights defenders ahead of International Women’s Day in March 2015, in relation to their planned activities to raise awareness of sexual harassment on public transportation. China has also maintained a consistent crackdown on civil society organisations since those arrests, resulting in the shuttering of multiple branches of the anti-discrimination NGO Yirenping and other organisations with ties to the ‘Feminist Five’.

Counter-terrorism and national security

At the June session’s panel on the impact of terrorism on human rights, China highlighted its efforts to enact legislation that ‘is implemented in line with the rule of law’ and that respects human rights and protects citizens’ ‘legal rights and freedoms’. The delegation expressed hope that this legal basis would facilitate deepening international counter-terrorism cooperation in the future. In separate remarks under their Item 4 intervention, the Chinese delegation raised concerns about ‘new anti-terrorism and national security laws’ in Western state that ‘overly constrict civil society freedoms and exclude specific human rights content’. In his response, the Special rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights, Ben Emmerson, welcomed the opportunity to comment on this law. Following the end of the Council, the High Commissioner for Human Rights released a strong statement calling on the Chinese government to consider the human rights implications of the National Security Law, adopted on 1 July.

For over a decade, however, China has used the imperative of counter terrorism as a means of suppressing dissent among ethnic minority populations such as Uighurs and Tibetans, and religious minorities such as Falun Gong practitioners. A draft anti-terrorism law, presented for consultation in January of this year, would specifically underwrite ‘strike hard’ campaigns in ethnic Muslim regions that often result in violence or arrests, and application of the death penalty.

NGOs have argued that the National Security Law has raised both substantive and procedural concerns that national security will become an excuse for silencing dissent, cracking down on civil society, and solidifying Party control. The law as adopted is even more regressive than the draft, including a broad definition of activity that constitutes a threat to national security, potentially including something as simple as criticism of the government. Regrettably, rather than respond transparently to questions from international civil society and the OHCHR, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Hua Chunying and Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva Ambassador Wu Hailong dismissed the High Commissioner's statement as ‘groundless’ and ‘amateur’.

Civil society space

Increased engagement by the Chinese delegation has been directed at limiting the space for constructive dialogue at the Council and other UN bodies. The Chinese government regularly presses the HRC Secretariat to ‘uphold the intergovernmental nature and membership’ of the Council and to ‘abide by the rules of procedure and relevant regulations’; though more nuanced than in previous years, these statements nonetheless allude to ongoing tensions around civil society participation at the Council. In previous sessions, the Chinese delegation used procedural tactics to silence civil society voices (25th session), and voted for hostile amendments to an HRC resolution on civil society space (27th session).

Domestically, efforts to suppress independent civil society have never been stronger. Starting on 9 July, the Chinese government began a systematic targeting of human rights lawyers, activists, and others, possibly in retaliation for their work on ‘sensitive’ high profile cases and engagement with international civil society and the UN. On 4 June, China closed for final comment draft legislation on ‘foreign NGO management’. According to a range of commentators, both human rights groups and businesses, if adopted in its current form the law would impose significant burdens on civil society organisations, both domestic and international. It would increase the securitisation of not just the work of human rights organisations, but a whole range of community-based groups – from legal clinics and service centres, to academic institutions, to industry associations – by bringing their activities under the purview of public security apparatus.

Despite China’s pledges and its increased activism, the Council must speak with one voice to China and send a strong, consistent message: States are not rights-respecting countries purely as a result of their membership. It is the work of the Council to ensure that the actions each Member State takes to advance human rights in the Council are mirrored by their efforts to continually advance human rights at home. At minimum, the blatant contradictions in China’s behavior in Geneva and in Zhongnanhai deserve the scrutiny of this Council and demand the justice to which human rights defenders, activists, scholars, and ordinary Chinese citizens are entitled.

Contact: Sarah M Brooks, East Asia Programme Manager, ISHR, on


  • Asia
  • Freedom of expression, association and assembly
  • Human rights defenders
  • UN Human Rights Council
  • China