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It’s Time to Right an Injustice at the UN


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In 2013, when China’s Geneva delegation requested the names of Chinese dissidents set to speak at the U.N. Human Rights Council, the U.N. complied. It was a decision that violated the organization’s own rules and put those testifying—including persecuted Uyghurs—in great danger.

The list included Dolkun Isa, current president of the World Uyghur Congress. Emma Reilly, a U.N. human rights officer, noticed her colleagues’ acquiescence to what she deemed a dangerous request. She also discovered that the U.N. denies similar requests from other nations, yet continues to make a sole exception for China—despite Beijing’s well-documented history of retaliating against human rights activists and their families.

Reilly protested and was fired, along with a U.N. judge who has criticized the U.N.’s actions. World leaders know what happened but have done nothing. For years.With Michelle Bachelet — the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, and head of the office that has been giving Beijing dissidents’ names — leaving her post at the end of August, the time to address this injustice and force her successor to end such an abhorrent practice might be running out.

Reilly fought for years—speaking out both internally and to the media —to bring an end to what she calls the U.N.’s “complicity in genocide.” But after facing reprisals from her superiors (one instance saw the U.N. send Swiss police to her home to prevent her from speaking at a meeting about Xinjiang), which she says left her “ostracized, publicly defamed” and “deprived of functions,” she took the U.N. to its internal employment court, where Rowan Downing heard her case.

In the first of what were to be three judgments, Downing criticized the U.N. for its treatment of Reilly. But days before he was to release his final two judgments on the case, the U.N. unexpectedly, and without explanation, terminated his appointment. Reilly was fired in 2021 for having gone public with her accusations.

When I met Downing in March 2021, he described his dismissal as an “attack upon the independence of the judiciary” and compared it to a “coup d’etat.” Caroline Hunt-Matthes, a former U.N. whistleblower who has been following the case, told me that the U.N.’s unprecedented “removal of a judge within [days of] delivering a judgment … speaks loud and clear about [the U.N.’s] intentions.”Reilly’s story has received coverage in BBC, Politico, Le Monde, Foreign Policy, The Telegraph, and The Sydney Morning Herald. Even the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, a bipartisan caucus composed of 51 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, embarked on a flurry of tweeting—and deleting—the story on Downing following its publication, in what may well have been an internal dispute over whether the commission should publicly support Downing’s allegations.

Why the silence from world leaders? Reilly has written to European Union delegations, the United States, United Kingdom, and others, detailing how the U.N. endangered dissidents by sharing their names with an oppressive regime. In 2019, Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok wrote to the Dutch parliament, noting that both the U.N. Ethics Office and Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights have admitted that the U.N. gives Beijing “lists of names” of Chinese dissidents set to speak at the council. U.N. Watch Executive Director Hillel Neuer has also sent letters on the matter to various Geneva delegations, including the U.S., U.K., Australia, Canada, France, and Germany—and received no response.

Are we to believe that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken or British Prime Minister Boris Johnson have somehow missed the varied coverage of this story? Or that the numerous letters to their offices and diplomats from Reilly and human rights organizations have been lost in the system?

China’s abuses of Uyghurs and other minorities are undeniable, and the U.N.’s decision to hand Chinese authorities the names of human rights activists—knowing that they and their families will face retaliation as a result—amounts to nothing less than complicity in one of the worst human rights atrocities of the 21st century. And all the while world leaders remain silent.

The U.N., for its part, has engaged in an Orwellian web of admissions, lies and contradictions in defending itself against what by now is incontrovertible. Statements have ranged from acknowledging that it gives dissidents’ names to China, to decrying the same accusations as far-right conspiracy theories, to claiming that the practice ceased in 2015.

Perhaps most damning, however, is the U.N.’s letter to Reilly detailing the reasons for her dismissal. It accused her not of lying (in February 2020 Secretary-General António Guterres told Reilly he knew her allegations were true), but of “having engaged in unauthorized communications with external parties in relation to issues concerning the official activities of the Organization.” In other words, Emma Reilly was not fired because she falsely accused her employer of complicity in genocide, but because she exposed that complicity to the world.

Michelle Bachelet, the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, ends her term on Aug. 31, and as head of the office that has been handing dissidents’ names to Beijing, holds a great deal of responsibility. Unfortunately, because of the lack of international pressure for an external investigation, there is little reason to believe her successor will stop the U.N.’s years-long campaign of abetting China’s oppression of Uyghurs and other minorities. If ever there was a time for world leaders to act and hold accountable the very institution formed to protect universal human rights, it is now. And it is long overdue.

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