U.S. absent as 11 countries rebuke China for torture of human rights lawyers

Li Wenzu, left, wife of imprisoned lawyer Wang Quanzhang, holds a paper that reads "Release Liu Ermin" as she and supporters of a prominent Chinese human rights lawyer and activists stage a protest in Tianjin, China. File August 2016. (AP Photo/Gerry Shih)

Eleven countries have jointly called on the Chinese government to investigate “credible claims of torture” against human rights lawyers, the Globe and Mail reported yesterday. In a letter dated Feb. 27 – which the Canadian newspaper said has not been made public – the signatories also condemned China’s practice of detaining suspects in secret locations for long periods of time.

According to the Globe and Mail, the letter was signed by ambassadors and diplomatic representatives from Canada, the U.K., Australia, Japan, Switzerland, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Estonia, France, Germany and Sweden. Notably absent was the United States.

“This letter is an important, positive example of how governments can band together to make their voices heard on human rights issues in China, and to lend support to those human rights defenders whose work has gotten a lot harder since President Xi came to power in March 2013 when he started a campaign assaulting civil society,” Maya Wang, a researcher in Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, wrote in an email to Humanosphere.

The signatories called for an end to China’s practice of “residential surveillance at a designated place” in which suspects can be held before their trial in a secret location for up to six months. The practice, the letter said according to the Globe and Mail, puts the detainees at high risk of torture and ill-treatment and is “contrary to China’s international human rights obligations.”

In addition, the representatives expressed “growing concern over recent claims of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in cases concerning detained human rights lawyers and other human rights defenders,” including activist Wu Gan and human rights lawyers, Xie Yang, Li Heping, Li Chunfu and Wang Quanzhang, the newspaper quoted the letter as saying.

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These men were among the more than 250 human rights defenders rounded up by the government in July 2015 as part of President Xi Jinping’s sweeping crackdown on civil society since coming into power. Human rights activists aren’t the only ones being targeted: all foreign nongovernmental organizations must register with the police under a “draconian” new law that went into effect on Jan. 1.

“The Chinese government seems intent on eliminating civil society through a combination of new legislation restricting the funding and operations of NGOs, and the criminalization of human rights activities as a so-called threat to national security,” Frances Eve, a researcher at the Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders, told the Guardian last month when the coalition released its annual report.

While human rights groups applauded the 11 countries that signed the letter, the U.S.’s absence did not go unnoticed. After meeting with Beijing, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a press conference that he “made clear that the United States will continue to advocate for universal values such as human rights and religious freedom.” But to many, inaction on efforts like the joint letter speaks much louder to the Trump administration’s similar prioritization of security over human rights.

“A welcome move,” Nicholas Bequelin, East Asia regional director for Amenesty International, wrote about the letter on Twitter, “[especially]when as the U.S. seems poised to play down rights issue at the moment.”

Although some question the effectiveness of joint pressure like this letter, governments have increasingly banded together when confronting China in order to lessen the possibility of economic retaliation. So far, it’s at least drawn China’s attention – and furor.

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Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for China’s foreign ministry responded to the Globe and Mail today, strongly condemning the 11 countries’ efforts to “disrupt” China’s judicial system “at the excuse of human rights.” The letter, she said, “is violating the spirit of rule of law.”

But already, there has been a noticeable shift.

Police in Henan province admitted in a statement on social media today that officers may have tortured a suspect who died while in custody. Experts told Agence Presse-France that although it is not the first time Chinese police have admitted to using torture, it is the first time they’ve done so on a public network.

“This seems to be a new communication tactic,” Jeremy Daum of Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center in Beijing, told AFP. “If people believe that the situation is being reviewed openly in accordance with law and handled justly, they are more likely to wait and see what happens rather than take their concerns to the streets.”

In the meantime, human rights groups are optimistic.

“At the very least, this should improve the treatment of those who are at risk – the lawyers in secret detention and who are possibly tortured,” Wang said. “What we really need now is for these governments to voice criticism in response to China’s regression on rights in a sustained manner, and at the highest level of government.”

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Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.