HRC36 | China should ensure unconditional release of all arbitrarily detained defenders


Arbitrary detention is a tool governments use to target defenders and rights activism, said ISHR today. Highlighting the case of China, ISHR emphasised that the outstanding cases of defenders languishing in detention, despite the efforts of the international community, are a call to action for Council members and UN officials alike.

Arbitrary detention is a common and cruel tool used by governments around the globe to intimidate and silence human rights defenders.

The Working Group on Arbitrary Detention highlighted in their annual report that this population is at particular threat, singled out in many cases for detention precisely to stymy their rights defence work. ISHR and other groups strongly condemned this practice during the Working Group’s interactive dialogue with the Council.

José Guevara, chairperson of the Working Group, called on States to ‘prevent and refrain from engaging in acts against persons cooperating with or cooperating with the United Nations, its representatives and mechanisms in the field of human rights’. He was joined in this condemnation of reprisals by a handful of states, including South Africa and Portugal. 

Despite these clear calls, many governments fail to recognise and protect the work of defenders, instead locking them up as common criminals.

Last week, on 6 September, four United Nations human rights experts – responsible for issues such as extreme poverty, human rights defenders, arbitrary detention and freedom of expression - called on the Government of the People’s Republic of China to immediately release Chinese lawyer and human rights defender Jiang Tianyong, held by Chinese authorities since 21 November 2016.

Jiang, who was finally tried on 22 August 2017 on charges of ‘inciting subversion of the State’, is still awaiting sentencing for a trumped-up crime that, in the most serious cases, could result in life in prison.

The concerns relevant to Mr Jiang’s case, of course, entail issues additional to the circumstances of his detention. 

  • His alleged crime was based on his activities to promote and defend human rights, including by communicating with ‘foreign entities’, which clearly runs counter to the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. The Declaration and international human rights law enshrine the right of all persons and associations to unhindered communication and cooperation with UN human rights bodies, mechanisms and agencies. 
  • The trial was neither fair nor impartial. Mr Jiang was shown in a televised confession on state media in March 2017; lawyers of his own choosing were barred from obtaining pertinent information; and activists and supporters, including media and diplomats, were unable to attend and observe the trial in person.
  • Mr Jiang’s physical and psychological health are a subject of great concern, given the real risks of abuse in places of detention, both formal detention centres and through the highly problematic ‘residential surveillance in a designated location’.   

Says Sarah M Brooks, ISHR programme manager for Asia: 'Jiang’s case raises real questions about what the Chinese government truly means when it states unashamedly, in Beijing and in this room, that it is committed to upholding the rule of law.'

However, his is not the only cause for concern.

  • Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo, subject of Working Group’s Opinion 15/2011, died of liver cancer on 13 July. The Norwegian Nobel Committee chair, at the time, stated that ‘the Chinese government bears a heavy responsibility for his premature death’. Liu’s case was highlighted by Mr Guevara in his opening statement, lamenting the refusal of the Chinese government to release Liu Xiaobo despite having received multiple requests for his liberation, including through the Working Group. He added that this behavior by Chinese authorities contravened articles 9, 10 and 19 of the UDHR.
  • Liu Xiaobo's wife - poet and artist Liu Xia – has been kept under house arrest since the award of her husband’s Nobel Prize. She was the subject of Working Group Opinion 16/2011. Her whereabouts and condition since Liu Xiaobo’s death remain unclear; video footage has surfaced indicating she is in Beijing, but close friends and colleagues cannot confirm her exact location or physical and psychological health.
  • Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti, subject of Opinion 3/2014 of 6 February 2014, was sentenced to life in prison for ‘separatism’ several months after that communication. On 23 September of this year, we will recognise the three year anniversary of this appalling sentence.
  • Su Changlan, subject of Opinion 39/2015. According to her husband, she has pre-existing medical conditions, including arrhythmia and hyperthyroidism, which have gone untreated or poorly treated during her imprisonment. As a result, while serving four years for ‘inciting subversion’, she has suffered from incontinence, significant weight loss, and trembling and numbness in her hands and feet.
  • Tibetan language rights advocate Tashi Wangchuk has been in detention for over 18 months with limited access to his family or a lawyer. The Chinese government was informed of the concerns of UN experts, including from the Working Group, as early as February of this year. He risks up to 15 years in prison for 'inciting treason' as a result of his efforts to ensure Tibetan language education. 

China is a Human Rights Council member, and as such has an obligation to uphold the highest human rights standards. But to many activists on the ground, and seemingly even to the Chinese government, this obligation is not taken seriously.

In its own statement to the Working Group, a representative of the Chinese delegation called the Chair’s reference to Liu Xiaobo an ‘irresponsible statement’ that constituted an ‘interference in China’s judicial sovereignty’; the delegate then questioned the Working Group’s credibility. She reiterated that they were a country of the rule of law, and that Constitutional guarantees protected against ‘illegal detention’.

Says Brooks, ‘This is wordsmithing. China can easily say they protect against ‘illegal’ detention. The rubber-stamp NPC and overbearing Party organs frequently pass and amend laws which legitimate detention which is manifestly incompatible with international law. It is no answer to a charge of arbitrary detention for China to say that domestic law permits it, nothwithstanding the lack of conformity of national laws with basic human rights standards. Such an absurd claim should not pass muster in the UN’s highest human rights body.’

ISHR urges the Chinese authorities to cooperate with the Working Group and other Special Procedures mandate holders. This includes providing positive responses to country visit requests that have gone unanswered for the last decade, and undertaking efforts to provide bilingual responses to allegation letters and urgent appeals.

'It would be a huge step forward for China to demonstrate transparently and in good faith that it is taking steps to prevent – not instrumentalise – arbitrary detention and to ensure remedy – not recurrence – to victims and their families', concludes Brooks. 

Watch the statement here: 

Photo credit: @badiucao, courtesy of CDT.


  • Asia
  • Human rights defenders
  • Special Procedures of the UN Human Rights Council
  • UN Human Rights Council
  • China