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Human Rights

Persecution of The Church of Almighty God: From bad to worse

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The British Conservative Party Human Rights Commission report called again the attention on a brutal campaign of repression, made worse by COVID-19, writes Rosita Šorytė of 'Bitter Winter'.

They call it epidemic prevention. In the Chinese province of Hebei, special teams go door to door, and inspect apartments and houses, ostensibly to make sure that anti-COVID measures are implemented. But in fact, they are instructed to check books and documents, and look for dissident or religious literature. In the apartment rented by Chen Feng (not his real name), they found material of The Church of Almighty God, a movement prohibited in China that is currently the most persecuted religious group there. Chen was promptly arrested and taken to the police station, where he received hard slaps across the face, and was shocked with electric batons. The police officers poked his ribs with an iron rod, struck his lower legs, and covered his head with a plastic bag.

This is one of the testimonies The Church of Almighty God (CAG) offered to the team preparing the report on human rights violations in China of the British Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, which was published on January 13. The report submitted to the Conservative Party Human Right Commission by the CAG is now available on the Commission’s Web site.

The Commission’s report itself summarizes the information it obtained on the CAG’s “brutal suppression and persecution.” The CAG told the Commission that at least 400,000 of its members were arrested since 2011, and 159 were persecuted to death. The report mentions documents by the Chinese Communist Party at the national and provincial level, calling for increased repression of the CAG through all legal and illegal means.

Readers of Bitter Winter frequently encounter articles about the arrest, torture, and extra-judicial killing of CAG members in China. Sometimes, we are afraid that repeated news of the persecution may be perceived as routine. As noted by psychologists who have studied reactions to protracted war and terrorism, humans have a defense mechanism that softens responses to even the most horrific information, when it repeats itself. News about the torture of CAG members, or Uyghurs or others, in China shock when we first read them. When similar news hit us every week, our minds tend to file them away as routine.

This is something the UK Conservative Party report is well aware of. It reminds us that what is happening daily in China is not simply a routine of evil. The persecution does not only repeat itself. It worsens. The CAG submission evidences three important aspects of how things are getting worse.

First, artificial intelligence is not just a slogan used by the CCP to show how advanced Chinese technology is. Each advance in technology has immediate police applications. Now each Chinese police officer is equipped with a Huawei Mate10 mobile phone that has a facial recognition function. which allows the police to scan the faces of passers-by and be immediately connected with information about them. Even in many private homes, citizens are compelled to install eavesdropping devices and cameras connected with the police, whose data are immediately analyzed. The same satellites we all use for being helped by GPS when driving a car continuously watch in China the movements of millions of citizens. These technologies improve every day, and are increasingly used to identify and arrest CAG members and other dissidents.

Second, the COVID-19 pandemic also made the situation considerably worse. On the one hand, it offered a handy pretext for increased surveillance and for door-to-door visits to all Chinese households. There are documents specifically asking “epidemic prevention teams” to look for CAG materials, and teaching team members how to recognize them. Also, the COVID-19 pandemic had effects on Chinese and international economy, and increased the demands for slave labor.  CAG members, as it happened to Uyghurs, Tibetans, and others, were increasingly sent, with or without a court trial, to unpaid, back-breaking slave labor, for 15 to 20 hours a day.

A female CAG member called Xiao Yun testified to the UK commission that she was forced to work at least 13 hours every day in a workshop, sewing sweaters. “The air was full of dust and dark smoke as well as a noxious odor of fabric dye. She was abused and beaten by prison guards over a long period of time,” until she developed tuberculosis. Yet, she had to keep working. In 2019 when Xiao Yun was finally released, “she had already sustained damage to her left lung, which had essentially lost its capacity to breathe; she was no longer able to perform any physical work.”

Third, COVID-19 determined a renewed CCP effort at international propaganda, as it had both to deny any responsibility for the pandemic and claim that the anti-COVID effort in China was the most effective in the world. As part of this so-called “wolf warrior diplomacy,” Chinese embassies throughout the world aggressively confronted CAG and other refugees abroad, distributing propaganda material that denied the persecution, and trying to persuade the authorities in democratic countries that asylum should not be granted and refugees should be deported back to China—where they will be arrested, or worse.

Part of this propaganda, which will surely be reiterated after the UK Conservative Party report, argues that, after all, we know that the CAG is persecuted in China only through CAG’s own statements, studies by scholars somewhat sympathetic to the CAG, and documents by governments and NGOs in countries such as the US and the UK, which are accused of having an anti-China political bias. Academic presses publishing the scholars’ findings and governments issuing reports on human rights normally have serious procedures to double-check what they publish, but this is not even the main answer to such objections.

What those who claim that the persecution of the CAG is “not proved” overlook is that a rich information about how many CAG members are arrested, sentenced, and detained, not for having committed any crime but simply for attending religious gatherings, evangelizing their relatives or co-workers, or keeping at home CAG literature, is offered every week by CCP sources. Not only decisions sentencing CAG members to long years in jail are regularly published in CCP media. China, as I and some colleagues reported in a study of hundreds of such cases, maintains the largest data base of court decisions in the world. This data base, while admittedly not complete, publishes every year decisions sending to jail hundreds of CAG members, sentenced just for the normal practice of their religion. Who tells the world that CAG members are persecuted? Primarily, it is not Bitter Winter, the UK Conservative Party, or the US Department of State. It is the CCP itself, and why should we doubt the CCP’s own documents?

Rosita-ŠORYTĖ

Rosita Šorytė was born on 2 September 1965 in Lithuania. In 1988, she graduated from the University of Vilnius in French Language and Literature. In 1994, she got her diploma in international relations from the Institut International d’Administration Publique in Paris.

In 1992, Rosita Šorytė joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Lithuania. She has been posted to the Permanent Mission of Lithuania to UNESCO (Paris, 1994-1996), to the Permanent Mission of Lithuania to the Council of Europe (Strasbourg, 1996-1998), and was Minister Counselor at the Permanent Mission of Lithuania to the United Nations in 2014-2017, where she had already worked in 2003-2006. She is currently on a sabbatical. In 2011, she worked as the representative of the Lithuanian Chairmanship of the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) at the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (Warsaw). In 2013, she chaired the European Union Working Group on Humanitarian Aid on behalf of the Lithuanian pro tempore presidency of the European Union. As a diplomat, she specialized in disarmament, humanitarian aid and peacekeeping issues, with a special interest in the Middle East and religious persecution and discrimination in the area.  She also served in elections observation missions in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Belarus, Burundi, and Senegal.

Her personal interests, outside of international relations and humanitarian aid, include spirituality, world religions, and art. She takes a special interest in refugees escaping their countries due to religious persecution and is co-founder and President of ORLIR, the International Observatory of Religious Liberty of Refugees. She is the author, inter alia, of “Religious Persecution, Refugees, and Right of Asylum,” The Journal of CESNUR, 2(1), 2018, 78–99.

 

EU

The EU’s struggles with its new human rights regime

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As the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet condemned Iran for the execution of regime critic Ruhollah Zam (pictured), calls for punishing human rights violations in a more effective manner are once again growing louder. In light of this, the EU’s adoption of its long-anticipated new global human rights sanctions regime is a welcome step in global politics – and for the EU itself, who hitherto had to take criticism over its lack of a Magnitsky-style human rights regime to punish human rights violators around the globe, writes Louis Auge.

While the EU’s regime drew inspiration from the American system, Brussels was wise not to create a carbon copy of the Magnitsky Act. After all, the Act has come under fire for several legal shortfalls that are seen as human rights violations in their own right. These are centring around its vague selection criteria, lack of due process and, following from this, abuse for political purposes by the US administration – all of which have thrown the validity of the Magnitsky Act as a tool for human rights enforcement into doubt.

Still, even if the EU has managed to create a legislative mechanism that is less arbitrary than Washington’s, important questions remain the bloc will need to address if it seeks to make its sanctions regime an effective instrument in the fight against human rights abuses – without making it a human right issue itself.

Guaranteeing due process

The EU now possesses “a framework that will allow it to target individuals, entities and bodies… responsible for, involved in or associated with serious human rights violations and abuses worldwide, no matter where they occurred.” In this stated ambition it broadly mirrors Magnitsky, and upon closer inspection, has some of the same consequences as well, whether this was intended or not.

Just like the Magnitsky Act, the EU regime provides the legal legitimacy to freeze all funds, assets and other economic resources associated with the targeted individual. The asset freezing can notably be extended to include “non-designated entities” as well as to individuals merely “associated” with the sanctions targets. In other words, the degree of collateral damage arising from EU sanctions can be much more extensive than anticipated, especially considering that the emphasis on targeting individuals was a deliberate choice by Brussels precisely to limit damage beyond the sanctioned individual itself.

This ability to cast the net wide has serious consequences for the targeted individual. If the consequences of the American sanctions regime are a lesson, then the freezing of financial resources makes finding legal representation practically impossible. The adverse effects are only exacerbated given the European Commission’s priority of recent years to elevate the Euro’s standing in global affairs relative to the US Dollar. A response to the extraterritoriality of US sanctions, strengthening the Euro could ironically increase the impact of the European sanctions regime outside the external market – making them effectively extraterritorial in nature.

It’s obvious that these conditions have a serious impact on due process under the EU sanctions regime. Much would already be improved over the Magnitsky Act if the EU were to ensure that the right to defence is upheld, a notion which the European Court of Justice emphasised in a seminal 2008 ruling which stipulated that “the rights of the defence, in particular the right to be heard, and the right to effective judicial review of those rights” need to be respected. It’s evident that Brussels has, if unwittingly, created circumstances that contradict this requirement. Indeed, previous EU sanctions regimes have been notorious for breaching this fundamental right, as can be readily determined by the numerous annulments of counter-terrorist and country sanctions imposed by the EU in the past.

Guilt and innocence 

A closely related issue fraud with uncertainties concerns the listing criteria and the provision of evidence upon which listing decisions are based. The European regime is not governed by an independent body for recommending sanctions, and no objective, uniform set of criteria exists to decide when to apply them. Defining clear and distinct criteria is the responsibility of member states but thus far this has only been done in the context of the EU’s horizontal, that is non-targeted, sanctions legislation.

This gap in the context of the new sanctions regime leaves a lot of room for arbitrary agenda-setting, particularly when the information member states rely on to draw up specific criteria is already tainted by political bias. Civil society organizations like NGOs do not have the power to directly suggest sanctions, as they do in the US, which removes a vector of politicisation from the sanctions process, at least on paper. However, considering the power some NGOs wield in public discourses and influencing political decision-making at the highest level, particularly in countries like Germany, there is a real danger that criteria will be drawn up with pre-conceived notions of guilt in mind.

As such, Brussels could well be tempted to swiftly assign culpability, mirroring the Magnitsky Act’s lose framework where the US treasury can cite “cause to believe” as sufficient to justify a listing. Why that’s problematic becomes clear not only by the fact that the target has little recourse to defend itself, but also in light of the far-reaching effects the sanctions have on the individual’s life.

Good intentions are not everything

Sanctions are, by nature, long-term restrictions, which should not be imposed lightly and therefore require irrefutable proof before doing so. The standard of what constitutes legitimate evidence to justify asset freezes and other quasi-permanent punitive measures should be high and is at the core of whether sanctions are just and in line with European and international human rights law – especially because, in reality, sanctions are penalties intended as an alternative to trial.

What does all of this mean for the EU? Many questions need to be answered and details resolved before the bloc’s new sanction regime is being applied for the first time. Member states have not yet proposed any entities for placing under sanctions, so there’s time to tackle these important issues. Brussels has tried hard to avoid replicating the Magnitsky Act, but more needs to be done to ensure its new sanctions regime is truly a worthy addition to the human rights toolbox rather than one of its problems.

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EU

EU-NGO Human Rights Forum: EU, civil society and business representatives discuss the impact of new technologies on human rights

EU Reporter Correspondent

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On 9 and 10 December, the EU and the Human Rights Democracy Network organise the 22nd EU-NGO Human Rights Forum. The focus of this year's virtual forum is on the impact of new technologies on Human Rights in times of the coronavirus pandemic. On 9 December, High Representative/Vice-President for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, and Commissioner for International Partnerships, Jutta Urpilainen, will open the plenary session.

A high-level panel will follow with the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, the EU Special Representative for Human Rights, Eamon Gilmore, and  International Federation for Human Rights President Alice Mogwe, among others. The EU, civil society, states and business enterprise stakeholders will discuss how the international community can seize the full potential of new technologies in fostering vibrant and pluralistic civil societies, while mitigating the risks that their misuse could have on fundamental rights.

The focus will be on four pillars: fundamental freedoms in the digital sphere; technology, business and human rights; privacy and surveillance; artificial intelligence development – opportunities and risks. More than 450 NGOs and human rights defenders from more than 100 countries will participate in the Forum. More details can be found in the Forum's agenda. The speeches of High Representative Borrell and Commissioner Urpilainen will be available on EbS.

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China

#HongKong - EU should use all its leverage to challenge #China crackdown on #HumanRights

EU Reporter Correspondent

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On 18 June, MEPs held a plenary debate on a resolution on the situation in Hong Kong, to be voted on Friday, deploring the unilateral introduction of national security legislation by Beijing, as this is a comprehensive assault on the city's autonomy, rule of law, and fundamental freedoms.
The Renew Europe Group strongly condemns the constant and increasing interference by China in Hong Kong’s internal affairs and calls on the European Commission to make use of all means at its disposal, including economic ones or targeted sanctions, to put pressure on the Chinese authorities to preserve Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy.

Renew Europe Group’s leader, Dacian Cioloş (PLUS, Romania), who supported the resolution in the Conference of Presidents, said the European Union cannot stay silent to China’s abuse of power: “Renew Europe group initiated today’s debate as a sign of strong support for the freedom of expression and the right to protest, as well as for the legal autonomy of Hong Kong.

"It is essential that the European Union, and all its member states, stand firmly by these values when it comes to the dialogue with China.

"Recent developments have shown that we need a new, robust, comprehensive and honest relations with China.

"In the following weeks, the European Union and its Member States should have no hesitation in using all leverage we have in supporting voice of Hong Kong protestors. Renew stands for democracy.”

MEP Hilde Vautmans (Open Vld, Belgium), Renew Europe Group’s co-ordinator in the Foreign Affairs Committee and EP standing rapporteur on China, added: “The arrests of pro-democracy leaders, the violent crackdown on protesters and the new security law are putting an end to the autonomy of Hong Kong. This Parliament is united in calling on China to withdraw the security law, respect the freedoms of the people in Hong Kong and to show that it is willing to respect the rule of law. If not, the international community should indeed consider a case before the International Court of Justice and Magnitsky-style sanctions. I want Europe to engage with China, but we have to do this by defending our values and our interests."

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