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China: Shock at continued crackdown on human rights defenders and lawyers – UN expert


GENEVA (16 December 2020) – A UN human rights expert today expressed dismay at the treatment of human rights defenders and lawyers in China, saying they continue to be charged, detained, disappeared and tortured five years after the start of a crackdown on the profession under the guise of national security concerns.

“Since the so-called ‘709 crackdown’ began on 9 July 2015, the profession of human rights lawyer has been effectively criminalised in China,” said Mary Lawlor, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders*.

The UN expert cited the recent arrest and enforced disappearance of human rights defender and lawyer Chang Weiping as emblematic of the Government’s ongoing efforts to silence lawyers who have been outspoken about the deterioration of human rights in China.

In January 2020, Chang Weiping was forcibly disappeared for 10 days in “residential surveillance at a designated location” (RSDL) by security officials in Baoji city on suspicion of “subversion of state power”, and his law license was annulled.

The lawyer posted a video in October, describing the torture and ill-treatment he was allegedly subjected to during his detention in RSDL, and the psychological and physical sequelae he has sustained. Days later, on 22 October, Mr. Chang was detained by security officials in Baoji city and placed once again in RSDL, in retaliation for his video. Since then, the defender’s whereabouts remain unknown, his lawyers have been unable to contact him and no charges have been brought against him.

“In a worrying display of disregard for human rights, the authorities have re-arrested a human rights defender for courageously sharing his experience and denouncing human rights violations, and attempted to portray him as a threat to national security,” said Lawlor.

“The fact that the lawyers initially hired by Mr. Chang’s family to represent him have both withdrawn from his case due to pressure they received from officials is also telling of the gravity and scale of the situation faced by human rights defenders and lawyers in China.” 

The UN expert expressed concern at reports indicating that other human rights defenders and lawyers, some who have been arrested and detained since the 2015 crackdown and subsequently released, have reportedly been faced with so-called security measures in the days before Human Rights Day on 10 December.

Lawlor also expressed concerns regarding the harassment of the families of human rights lawyers who are disbarred and detained. Families of human rights defenders and lawyers are routinely threatened, summoned for questioning, subjected to surveillance by the authorities and socio-economically affected on account of the loss of income to the household.

Lawlor also highlighted the inherent contradiction in targeting lawyers under the pretext of protecting the rule of law.

“I respect and appreciate the importance of safeguarding national security and the right of every Government to do so,” said Lawlor. “However, the lives and livelihoods of its citizens and their human rights should not be the cost of doing so.

“Fundamental human rights are not a threat to any Government or society, and neither are the individuals who defend those rights. I urge the Chinese authorities to release at once Chang Weiping and all other detained and disappeared human rights defenders.”

The expert’s call was endorsed by: The UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary DisappearancesMr. Tae-Ung Baik (Chair-Rapporteur), Mr. Henrikas Mickevičius (Vice Chair), Ms. Aua Baldé, Mr. Bernard Duhaime, and Mr. Luciano Hazan,  Mr. Nils Melzer, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and Mr. Diego García-SayánSpecial Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers.


(*)Ms Mary Lawlor (Ireland) is the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders. She is currently an Adjunct Professor of Business and Human Rights in Trinity College Dublin. She was the founder of Front Line Defenders - the International Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders. As Executive Director from 2001-2016, she represented Front Line Defenders and had a key role in its development. Ms. Lawlor was the Director of the Irish Section of Amnesty International from 1988 to 2000, became a Board member in 1975 and was elected Chair from 1983 to 1987.


Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity. 

UN Human Rights, Country Page: China


For more information and media requests please contact Adriana Zarraluqui (+41 22 917 9965 /azarraluqui@ohchr.org) or write to defenders@ohchr.org


For media enquiries regarding other UN independent experts, please contact Renato de Souza (+41 22 928 9855 / rrosariodesouza@ohchr.org) and Kitty McKinsey (kmckinsey@ohchr.org)

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