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Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination discusses situation in Latvia and China with civil society

GENEVA (7 August 2018) - The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination this morning held an informal meeting with representatives of non-governmental organizations with respect to Latvia and China, whose reports on the implementation of the provisions of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination will be considered this week.

The reports of Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina will also be reviewed by the Committee this week but there were no civil society representatives present to speak about the situation in those countries.

Noureddine Amir, Committee Chairperson, welcomed the representatives of non-governmental organizations, and thanked them for their efforts to come to Geneva and to allow the Committee to understand all of their concerns.

During the discussion, a representative of a non-governmental organization from Latvia drew attention to two problems: non-citizens and the inability to teach in Russian.  Non-citizens comprised 11 per cent of the population, and 13 per cent of the voting population.  Almost all of them belonged to ethnic minorities.  Despite repeated recommendations, their access to public services, legal professionals, pensions and social benefits remained limited.  Turning to the issue of languages, the organization said that it particularly affected the Russian-speaking population.  Russian was considered a foreign language.  There was only teaching in Latvian in public schools, in addition to some European Union languages, but not in Russian.  According to the new law, at least 50 per cent of lessons had to be conducted in Latvian, and that percentage increased in higher grades of school.  

The non-governmental organization Latvian Human Rights Committee spoke on Latvia.

On China, civil society organizations underlined the problem of shrinking space for civil society activism and public participation in policy-making, discriminatory policies, sentencing and detention practices in the province of Xinjiang (Uyghur minority), and restrictions on civil and political rights in Tibet.  Organizations reminded that Tibetan nomads were becoming landless and impoverished, and were forced to give up their culture due to the Chinese Government targeting them with resettlement policies, forced evictions, and Government land confiscation for the purpose of tourism, hydropower and mining activities, and massive infrastructure programmes.  The same was happening to Mongolian herders.  

Non-governmental organizations from Hong Kong, special administrative region of China, spoke of challenges to the “One Country, Two Systems” doctrine, lack of a statutory national human rights institution, deficiencies of the Race Discrimination Ordinance, education of ethnic minorities, employment, poverty, housing and health of ethnic minorities, protection of asylum seekers and refugees, the situation of migrant domestic workers, mainlanders and split families, and human trafficking.  

Speaking on China were International Service for Human Rights, Tibet Advocacy Coalition Report China Review, Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Centre, Happiness Realization Research Institute, International Campaign for Tibet, and World Uyghur Congress.  

Speaking on Hong Kong, special administrative region of China, were Justice and Peace Commission of the Hong Kong Catholic Diocese, Centre for Comparative and Public Law at the University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong Ethnic Minority Student and Hong Kong Unison, Society for Cultural Integration and Hong Kong Unison, Mission for Migrant Workers, Civil Human Rights Front, and the Office of Dennis Kwok, Legislative Councillor and Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor.


The Committee will next meet in public on Tuesday, 7 August, at 3 p.m., to consider the combined fourth to sixth periodic report of Montenegro (CERD/C/MNE/4-6).  

Opening Statement

NOUREDDINE AMIR, Committee Chairperson, on behalf of the Committee welcomed the representatives of non-governmental organizations, and thanked them for their efforts to come to Geneva and to allow the Committee to understand all of their concerns.  

Statement on Latvia

Latvian Human Rights Committee referred to “two big elephants in the room,” namely non-citizens who comprised 11 per cent of the population, and 13 per cent among the voting populations, and education in the Russian language.  Almost all of the non-citizens belonged to ethnic minorities.  Despite repeated recommendations, their access to public services, legal professionals, pensions and social benefits remained limited.  There were about 700,000 non-citizens in the beginning of the 1990s.  In the meantime, the reduction of their numbers had occurred because of migration and mortality, or because they had obtained citizenship of other countries.  Turning to the issue of languages, the organization said that it particularly affected the Russian-speaking population.  Russian was considered a foreign language.  There was a restriction on teaching in minority languages.  There was only teaching in Latvian in public schools, in addition to some European Union languages, but not in Russian.  According to the new law, at least 50 per cent of lessons had to be conducted in Latvian, and that percentage increased in higher grades of school.  Universities and colleges, even private ones, could only teach in European Union languages.  There were limits on radio and TV stations to broadcast mostly in Latvian.  Furthermore, a local counsellor had been removed from office because he did not speak Latvian sufficiently, even though he had been elected for the post three times in a row.  There were fines for not speaking Latvian for professional requirements.  Moreover, only Latvian could be used in the public sphere, such as street signs, and the writing of personal names was mandatorily written with Latvian endings.  

Questions by Committee Experts

YANDUAN LI, Committee Expert and Country Rapporteur for Latvia, asked what the legal status of persons without Latvian citizenship was, since they were neither considered foreigners nor stateless persons.  The number of so-called non-citizens had decreased.  What was the reason for that?  

Why did the Government of Latvia every year approve the manifestations honouring Second World War Nazi forces?  Did the Government have a fund for bilingual education in private schools?

One Expert reminded that for a long time in Latvia the law discriminated again people who were not Latvian ethnically.  Did the law on acquiring Latvian nationality continue to be discriminatory?  What were the requirements for foreigners to require Latvian nationality?

What was the situation of the Roma people in Latvia?  

Responses by the Non-Governmental Organization from Latvia

Latvian Human Rights Committee explained that non-citizens were a separate legal category, according to a decision of the Latvian Constitutional Court, which was explained as necessary due to the fact that Latvia was a State party to the United Nations Conventions on Statelessness.  Some 43 per cent of non-citizens were born in Latvia since its independence, whereas others had lived in Latvia since the Soviet times.  The reduction in the number of non-citizens was due, among other things, to the fact that some persons had been able to pass Latvian language exams.  The 2018 requirements for teaching mostly in Latvian were also applicable to private schools.  As for the Government’s approval of gatherings honouring former Nazi soldiers, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that it was just a private meeting of persons commemorating their former Latvian Waffen-SS comrades.  However, there was also a claim that they were freedom fighters fighting under the command of Adolf Hitler.  As for the Latvian law on acquiring citizenship, the most recent amendments of 2013 had rendered ethnic preferences more symbolic.  Children of non-citizens could now apply for Latvian citizenship if one of the parents applied for it.  However, one should get citizenship automatically at birth.  The law allowed dual nationality only with European Union and NATO countries, Switzerland, Australia, Iceland, and Norway.  However, it was not allowed to also hold dual citizenship with Russia, Ukraine or Israel.  On conditions for acquiring Latvian nationality, the organization explained that one had to live in Latvia for five years without interruption, hold no criminal record whatsoever, pass an exam on the history, language and institutions of Latvia, and take an oath of allegiance.  As for the situation of Roma, there were very limited statistics.  But it was evident that unemployment and lack of education among the Roma were very problematic.  Available data on the prison population showed that Roma figured significantly among prisoners.  

Statements on China

International Service for Human Rights reminded that since the last review in the Committee, the space for civil society activism and public participation in policy-making continued to shrink in China.  The organization drew particular attention to discriminatory policies, sentencing and detention practices in the province of Xinjiang, restrictions on civil and political rights in Tibet, and the structural legal and policy background, including limits on the role of non-governmental organizations and lawyers.  The organization underlined that the evidence indicated that most of the detentions were taking place outside the criminal justice system, and targeted specifically Uyghur and other Muslim minorities, such as Kazakh.  A severe tightening of national security policy vis-à-vis ethnic minorities was in large part a result of China’s military and policy responses to the 2008 uprising in Tibet, 2009 riots in Xinjiang, and the increase in oppressive policies in Tibet since Xi Jinping’s presidency had begun in 2012.  Tibetans were extremely restricted in their movements within Tibet.  Approximately 44 per cent of imprisoned or detained journalists in China were from ethnic minority groups.  For comparative purposes, ethnic Uyghurs made up approximately one per cent of China’s population, whereas Tibetans made up less than one per cent.  

Tibet Advocacy Coalition Report China Review drew attention to Tibetan nomads who were becoming landless and impoverished, and were forced to give up their culture due to the Chinese Government targeting them with resettlement policies, forced evictions, and Government land confiscation for the purpose of tourism, hydropower and mining activities, and the massive infrastructure programme Belt and Road Initiative.  Tibetan protesters had peacefully protested their resettlement to which the Chinese authorities had responded with reprisals, such as threats and actual military and police violence, detention and imprisonment.  Furthermore, the Tibetan language was marginalized and reduced to an auxiliary language, while Tibetans had faced intense restrictions on receiving Chinese passports since 2012.  Tibetan human rights defenders were viewed as a threat to the integrity of China and were often charged with terrorism charges.

Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Centre noted that the traditional lifestyle of Mongolian herders was under threat as the Chinese authorities portrayed it as backward, archaic and uncivilized, and that it needed to be replaced by the Chinese way of life.  The Government’s five-year plan had aimed to resettle the remaining nomad population of 246,000 Mongolian households by the end of 2015.  The socio-economic and political purposes of the plan was to accelerate the development mode shift of animal husbandry and grassland eco-system protection in pastoralist areas towards ethnic harmony and frontier stability, and to lay the foundation for building an all-around prosperous society.  China’s newly established special police force called “Livestock Grazing Ban SWAT Team” had been deployed in rural areas to carry out that plan.

Happiness Realization Research Institute stated that it had submitted a report on racial discrimination in China, especially against ethnic minorities such as the Uyghurs.  The Chinese authorities argued that the three evils of separatism were ethnic and religious extremism, and terrorism.  The anti-terrorism legislation labelled as extremist almost any Uyghur activity and people’s daily lives were monitored in a totalitarian manner.  The culture of Muslims was strictly limited.  In February 2018, an Uyghur couple had been sent to a camp because they had given their children Muslim names.  Uyghurs were also forced to sign a written pledge not to observe fasting.  

International Campaign for Tibet drew attention to discriminatory policies, regulations and measures, as well as public narratives against Tibetans in China.  Any expression of Tibetan identity was portrayed as extremist and separatist.  Tibetans were frequently beaten, arrested and tortured for trying to practice their religion.  They faced restrictions of movements even in Tibet and were denied passports to travel abroad.  The Chinese authorities needed to stop promoting narratives on Tibetan backwardness.  Anti-terrorism laws were used to simply suppress those who called for the use of the Tibetan language and culture.  The organization urged the Committee to hold China accountable for its numerous human rights violations and abuses.

World Uyghur Congress stated that China had been operating political indoctrination camps for Uyghurs and Kazakhs.  In August 2018, an estimated three million people had been detained in such camps without legal representation and forced to undergo indoctrination classes.  The representative of the organization also spoke about the case of his family members who had been detained in such camps, noting that many Uyghurs had lost contact with their family members.  He questioned the due process and legal basis for detention, and wondered about the number of Uyghurs in such camps.  All Uyghur activities had been treated under China’s counter-terrorism law.  Uyghurs faced daily surveillance and their freedom of religion was trampled on: babies could not carry Muslim names and people could not obtain halal food.

Statements on Hong Kong, Special Administrative Region of China

Justice and Peace Commission of the Hong Kong Catholic Diocese said that in recent years the Chinese Government had repeatedly undermined the rule of law in Hong Kong and it damaged its human rights regime and autonomy by ignoring its distinctive “One Country, Two Systems” doctrine, guaranteed by an international treaty, namely the Sino-British Joint Declaration, and it continued to undermine civil liberties there.  A general deteriorating human rights situation further worsened the rights of minorities and vulnerable groups.  The organization reminded that seven core international human rights treaties were applicable to Hong Kong, and it asked the Committee to urge the Chinese Government to restrain itself from intervening into “One Country, Two Systems” doctrine.  It also asked the Committee to urge the Hong Kong Government to establish a statutory independent human rights institution in line with the Paris Principles.  

Centre for Comparative and Public Law at the University of Hong Kong noted that the Equal Opportunities Commission in Hong Kong remained non-compliant with the Paris Principles.  It was plagued by its lack of independence from the Government given that its funding came from a Government bureau.  The Government should be urged to immediately take steps to implement the Discrimination Law Review recommendations without delay within one year.  Racial minorities faced widespread discrimination in accessing Government services or when subjected to State power.  The dangers of that gap were best evidenced by the case of Arjun Singh, an 11-year old Indian child, who was racially discriminated against by the Hong King police when he had sought police assistance to file a complaint against a Chinese woman.

Hong Kong Ethnic Minority Student and Hong Kong Unison spoke about education of ethnic minorities in Hong Kong and the fact that 55 per cent of ethnic minority primary and secondary school students were still concentrated within 30 schools despite there being more than 1,000 schools in Hong Kong.  How were they supposed to integrate and interact when they were pushed to stay within their own community only?  The other barrier they faced was the lack of a proper Chinese language curriculum.  Even though the Government had set up a second language framework, ethnic minorities were still being taught a lower level of Chinese, which rendered them less competitive than their Chinese peers.  

Society for Cultural Integration and Hong Kong Unison noted that half of the Pakistani community and 25 per cent of ethnic minorities were likely to be living in poverty compared with 20 per cent for the overall population in Hong Kong.  Institutional racism in Hong Kong still existed.  Skin colour mattered not only in employment, but also in private flat renting, access to health and medical services, and access to social services.  The Government should form a multidisciplinary task force to conduct an impact assessment of legal and policy measures in place in relation to ethnic minority life prospects and wellbeing.  

Centre for Comparative and Public Law at the University of Hong Kong drew attention to the issue of a comprehensive procedure for determining asylum claims, and full protection of the human rights of asylum seekers and refugees.  The Unified Screening Mechanism introduced in 2014 did not meet the Committee’s requirements as it did not grant asylum and even successful non-refoulement claimants remained in Hong Kong as illegal migrants.  There had been reports of ill treatment, even torture, of asylum seekers in detention.  The Government should urgently intervene and investigate torture, and physical and psychological abuse by officers in detention centres.  

Mission for Migrant Workers stated that there were nearly 380,000 migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong and they were taking care of 11 per cent of household families.  There was a serious lack of social protection for them.  They were subject to discriminatory immigration policy and restrictions.  For example, the requirement that they leave Hong Kong within two weeks after a contract ended prevented them from reporting and pursuing claims against abusive employers.  The organization urged the Government to establish a comprehensive monitoring and complaints mechanism and to ensure that migrant domestic workers were provided with suitable accommodation and protected from abuses.

Civil Human Rights Front noted that in order to eliminate racial profiling, the Hong Kong police force should record and collect race and ethnicity data on identity card checks, stops and searches, and on arrests and crime rates.  An independent national human rights institution should urgently be established to consider and act on individual complaints of human rights violations by public authorities, especially on the police force and correction services.  The organization urged the introduction of mandatory human rights training for the police and immigration academy and training centres for all new recruits.  Training on cultural, gender and disability was also crucial.

Hong Kong Unison called attention to indirect discrimination with respect to the immigration status and nationality under the Race Discrimination Ordinance.  Migrant children from the mainland and children born in Hong Kong with single parents originally eligible for residence, but no longer eligible due to reasons of death or desertion, had to wait for formal permissions and official papers to enter Hong Kong for settlement.  The organization urged the Government to review its welfare policies, especially the social security system, to guarantee the best interests of those children, especially their right to education, social welfare, and health.  

Office of Dennis Kwok, Legislative Councillor and Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor, noted that the Government’s consistent attitude towards human trafficking was to ignore the need, or even the fact that human trafficking existed in Hong Kong.  Under domestic and international pressure, the Government had finally adopted an action plan to combat human trafficking and to protect migrant domestic workers.  However, the implementation remained questionable and there were no corresponding legislative changes.  The Palermo Protocol applied to mainland China and Macau, but not to Hong Kong.

Questions by Committee Experts

NICOLÁS MARUGÁN, Committee Expert and Country Co-Rapporteur for China, inquired about employment discrimination and about what body dealt with labour racial discrimination.  How could the situation of non-governmental organizations improve?  

Mr. Marugán further inquired about the efforts to tackle trafficking in persons, and hate crimes and hate speech.  Ethnic minorities represented about 30 per cent of the poor in China in 2015.  Was there any updated information on that issue?

GAY MCDOUGALL, Committee Expert and Country Co-Rapporteur for China, observed that there was no information on economic and social rights in China’s autonomous administrative regions.  Was there another credible institution that gathered such data?  Did current law cover discrimination by private entities?  What was the situation of the exiled Uyghurs?  What was the stance of the Government of Kazakhstan on the Uyghur question and cooperation with China in that respect?  

VERENE SHEPHERD, Committee Expert and Country Co-Rapporteur for China, inquired about the content of education in Tibet, upward social mobility of ethnic minorities, and the possibility of social integration through history education.

Another Expert inquired about the name change imposed on Muslims in China.  Was it required for identity documents and birth certificates?  Turning to migrant domestic workers, she asked whether a monitoring and complaints mechanism was in place.  Were there any labour safeguards for them?

What was the status of legislative procedures for asylum seekers and refugees?  Was there any data on refugees and asylum seekers, especially those from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea?  What was the situation of stateless children?

What was the representation of ethnic minorities in the media?  Were clandestine detention centres prisons?  What was the situation of African migrants in the Guangzhou region?  

How was the principle of burden of proof implemented?  

Replies by Non-Governmental Organizations from China

International Campaign for Tibet explained that most conflicts about the use of Tibetan language were linked with the use of language in the public arena and not just in schools.  There was intrusion in the private lives of Tibetans through Chinese authorities taking Tibetan monks for re-education or legal education.  As for poverty among ethnic minorities, data was very anecdotal.  However, it had been estimated that one million Tibetans had been taken away from their land and were not able to integrate in the labour market dominated by the Chinese language and Chinese workers.

World Uyghur Congress said that in October 2016 the Government of China had gathered all passports of Uyghurs, and had ordered all Uyghur students abroad to return.  More than 300 Uyghur students had voluntarily returned, but upon arrival they had disappeared.  The rest of the Uyghur students abroad then refused to return.  In addition, in cooperation with China, Egypt had started the massive arrest of Uyghur students studying there.  Some had escaped from Egypt to Turkey.  Some Uyghurs studying in Thailand had also been deported.  As for the Uyghurs living in Kazakhstan, the Government of Kazakhstan had been very cooperative with China and it had deported Uyghurs back to China.  It was very difficult for young Uyghurs to find jobs in China.  Uyghurs feared to use their mobile phones because the Chinese authorities could submit them to communication searches for any religious references, which would then be treated under anti-terrorism legislation.  

International Service for Human Rights clarified that recently the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty had found that in western China, where most ethnic minorities lived, extreme poverty was five times higher than in eastern seaboard China.  On the situation of non-governmental organizations, over the last six years they had faced a stricter environment.  In 2018, following the entry into force of the Foreign Non-Governmental Organizations Law, fewer overseas civil society organizations had been able to register.  The Chinese Government exercised significant power to censor, but China did not recognize enough the problem of hate speech.  The re-education was too often used to suppress the so-called “separatist” movements, which were in fact movements to protect land, culture and language.

Centre for Comparative and Public Law at the University of Hong Kong pointed out to the problem of accessing schools, employment, and health services due to skin colour, which resulted in higher rates of poverty.  The poverty rate was generally higher among South Asian minorities (such as, Nepalese and Pakistani) in Hong Kong.  The poverty risk was higher among women.  As for hate speech, there was a widespread increase in hate speech against migrants in Hong Kong, especially just before elections.  Media regularly headlined the race of alleged perpetrators of robbery and rape, and South Asians were regularly lumped together as one racial group.  The Government argued that it could not remove hate speech posts online due to the principle of freedom of expression.  

Hong Kong Unison stated that the Government had not provided a curriculum with Chinese as the second language for ethnic minorities, which prevented them from acquiring a higher level of Chinese and later from enrolling into higher education.  Even if parents wanted their children to learn Chinese, they faced discrimination in enrolling their children into kindergartens in Hong Kong, thus negatively affecting social integration.  There was no history of ethnic minorities in school curricula.  Ethnic minorities were stereotyped in textbooks, such as the Filipinos being portrayed only as domestic workers.  Some 65 per cent of poor ethnic minorities in Hong Kong resided in poor workers’ households.  The representation of ethnic minorities in the civil administration was very low.  The Government had not lowered the Chinese exam criteria for ethnic minorities.  

Mission for Migrant Workers underlined that migrant domestic workers were forced to borrow money to come to work in Hong Kong, and their passports were always taken away upon arrival.  The conditions of their stay further discriminated against them and when faced with abuse they were reluctant to discontinue their contracts.

Office of Dennis Kwok, Legislative Councillor and Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor stated that civil society would be very happy to have any improvement in the Government’s action plan to fight trafficking in persons.  However, there was no follow-up and prosecution for the perpetrators of trafficking due to the lack of corresponding legislative changes.  The burden of proof in Hong Kong required the plaintiff to prove racial discrimination.  The Equal Opportunities Commission in Hong Kong was not a real national human rights institution since many members were pro-Government, and it did not have powers to review the policies of Government bodies, and to monitor and give recommendations.  The Government had not committed to amend the Race Discrimination Ordinance.  As for the discrimination against Africans in Hong Kong, Africans were perceived as criminals and discriminated against in the housing market.

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For use of the information media; not an official record