Last week was a jam-packed one where the commemoration of human rights triumphs was concerned. Wednesday, December 9th marked the 72nd anniversary of the adoption of the Genocide Convention by the United Nations General Assembly. The following day commemorated Human Rights Day in honour of the adoption and proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the same UN body.
Although I have previously written about my pessimism in regards to the efficacy and consistency of modern human rights doctrines and institutions, it would be foolish to deny that these anniversaries mark important steps in the ongoing mission toward a better and fairer world. Yet criticising the United Nations’ flawed approach to human rights is as much a pitstop on the road to justice as was the organisation’s hopeful beginnings.
The list of UN failures is hardly a short one. During the 1970s, the United Nations recognised the brutal Khmer Rouge regime that claimed the lives of up to 2 million Cambodians, ignoring its human rights violations. Amid Civil War in Somalia, the UN peacekeeping mission was an abject failure not only in keeping the peace but in providing humanitarian aid. Of the 172 UN General Assembly resolutions on the Arab-Israeli conflict, none mentions the approximately 800,000 Jewish refugees (over ninety per cent of the Jewish population outside of the West) displaced by the conflict.
During the 1994 Rwandan Civil War, UN troops abandoned the victims of the genocide in which up to 600,000 Tutsis were murdered, or in some cases remained as spectators while the horrific violence raged on. During the Srebrenica massacre the following year, many victims fled to the UN “safe zone” in Srebrenica only to find the Dutch troops there incapable of defending them.
In August 2017, Myanmar’s military launched a crackdown on the Rohingya minority, killing almost 24,000 civilians and displacing up to 750,000 others, including women and children. Mass gang rapes, killings — including of infants and young children — brutal beatings and disappearances were committed by Myanmar state forces. China, a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council as of 2020, blocked UN efforts for the Rohingya in the Security Council.
These decades-long failures, although largely unreported, have at least been the subject of massive publicity and in some circumstances, compensation and useful reflection. Yet one shocking tale of UN corruption, that once again came to public attention in early November has gone virtually unnoticed.
Speaking to Maajid Nawaz on LBC radio in early November, UN human rights lawyer Emma Reilly has accused the UN Human Rights Council of deliberately passing names of Uyghur dissidents to the Chinese Communist Party. Reilly claimed that before each UNHRC session, the Chinese representatives would ask the UN “whether or not certain people were planning to come,” which is “completely against the rules.”
This may seemingly have been the case for years. In a recently-released letter, UN Watch, an NGO that highlights UN malpractice and bias, revealed that as far back as February 2017 “Chinese authorities, and others, regularly ask the UN Human Rights Office whether particular NGO delegates are attending future sessions.” It is even speculated that the practice may have gone on from as early as 2013. Just as alarming was the official acknowledgement of this information from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in a 2017 press release.
Both Reilly and UN Watch have asserted that the Chinese regime uses the information provided by the UN, to track and harass Uyghur activists and their families – often accusing them of terrorism and other crimes. In an exclusive interview with Indian media outlet WION, Reilly expanded on the fate of those whose names were handed over: “They described the Chinese government attending their homes in China, forcing their family members to phone them, to try to persuade them not to appear. In some cases, they were holding the mobile numbers that they haven’t shared with their family members for their safety. In some cases, family members were arbitrarily arrested, detained, tortured and even died in detention, particularly in concentration camps in China.”
A moral scandal of this magnitude ought to be the subject of intense press scrutiny and public outrage, and yet it has routinely slipped to the bottom of headlines since it was first revealed in 2017. Transcripts from the United Nations Human Rights Commission show how Reilly has repeatedly been insulted and ostracised for her whistleblowing. It is now our job to make sure that her message does not go unheard.
Georgia is an associate writer for Foundation for Uyghur Freedom. Follow them on Instagram @foundation4uyghurfreedom.