‘If I lose my freedom’: How China’s human rights defenders are preemptively resisting forced confessions

Originally published on 16 May 2017 at Hong Kong Free Press, here.

On May 3, police in Yunnan abducted human rights lawyer Chen Jiangang. He was forced to drive with security over 3,000 kilometres back to Beijing. He remained in their custody for over 80 hours, coincidentally missing the trial of his client, Xie Yang, whose torture he had exposed in January.

At his trial, Xie Yang “admitted” to having been brainwashed by foreign agents, and on Hunan state TV he repeated that he had sensationalised cases and denied that he had been tortured. Xie Yang had anticipated his forced confession.

Xie, detained in July 2015, wrote in a January 2017 affidavit, “If, one day in the future, I do confess – whether in writing or on camera or on tape – that will not be the true expression of my own mind. It may be because I’ve been subjected to prolonged torture, or because I’ve been offered the chance to be released on bail…” Soon after his trial, Xie was released on bail, but he is not free.

It seems police abducted Chen Jiangang to ensure his silence during Xie’s trial, but as soon as he was taken, reasonable fears circulated that he would be “disappeared”. Like Xie Yang, Chen’s understanding of the cruelty of China’s police state bred prescience. Three months earlier he had recorded a video statement to be released if he lost freedom. It was published on the China Change website soon after he was taken.

A sombre five minutes, Chen states that he has committed no crimes and won’t accuse others. Any spoken, written, or video confession will only have been made under duress, threat, or torture. If, in the future, he ends up on television accusing others or revealing names, he asks for forgiveness. Emotionally, he ends with, “If I am seized, dear kids, your father loves you. If I lose my freedom, release this video.”

While such prerecorded statements are becoming more common for human rights defenders in China, still more should learn from those like Chen Jiangang that protecting their clients or themselves also involves controlling narratives. Such statements are an important innovation in protection tactics in response to China’s increasing fetish for disappearances and forced confessions.

China is a fan of forced confessions

Forced confessions violate Chinese law and international norms. For those awaiting trial, broadcasting forced confessions violates their right to a fair trial. Many forced confessions come following hundreds of days in pretrial detention, which itself should be the exception, never the rule, and only for the shortest time necessary. The risk of torture is already high in a criminal justice system reliant on confessions, while the pursuit of forced confessions drastically increases the risk. Victims of enforced disappearance and secret detention are especially vulnerable to torture.

Emblematic is the case of my friend and former colleague lawyer Wang Quanzhang, whose exact fate and whereabouts have not been verified since police abducted him in August 2015. In January 2017, it was revealed that he has been tortured. Likely, Wang’s ongoing abuse is largely due to his refusal to perform a forced confession.

Part of the “709 Crackdown,” several prominent human rights lawyers have been forced to deliver televised confessions, from Wang Yu to Zhang Kai, who later disappeared a second time after he publicly recanted his initial forced confession. A couple months earlier, in June 2016, Hong Kong bookseller Lam Wing Kee also revealed that he and his colleagues at Mighty Current publishing had been forced into confessing, including Gui Minhai who remains incommunicado.

In his televised “confession,” Gui, a Swedish citizen, asked not to receive diplomatic assistance and renounced his Swedish citizenship. This has been rightly dismissed as arising from coercion but what if Gui, like Chen Jiangang, had left a video preemptively dismissing such absurdity? For many who disappear into China’s Orwellian darkness, and reemerge to “confess,” their last credible speech act may be what they leave with others, which in turn may offer some protection.

Scholars have identified the dramatisation of glaring state contradictions as creating opportunity for resistance. In practical terms, if preventive protection measures against certain forms of repression are increasingly adopted, the authorities are more likely to abandon them, ultimately protecting human rights defenders from being subjected to them in the first place.

Preventive protection and forced confessions

Video is powerful and rights defenders at risk of disappearance or forced confession should record their statements rather than just writing them down.

Before recording, it is important to conduct a thorough threat assessment, which should be detailed and constantly reviewed and updated.

Once taken, it is often too late to ask that person what assistance they want. Even if allowed to meet a lawyer, pressure often limits what one is able to say. This is why recording in advance is so important. The message depends on the individual. Gui Minhai could have expressed that he had already given up Chinese citizenship and would never renounce Swedish citizenship. For others it could be stating that they would never accept a state appointed lawyer. Some might want to issue a statement about family members, that except if subjected to threat or torture they would never deny access to the family bank account, a measure the state has used to target family members’ economic livelihood.

It is also important that the video preempts likely accusations, such as noting that under no circumstances but duress or torture would one admit to being a criminal, or denounce colleagues. One might state they have never colluded with foreign forces to cause trouble, that they believe in human rights and the rule of law, respect their work, and would never denounce their efforts to strengthen the rule of law in China, except if under threat to do so.

Human rights defenders should make sure they have a safe contact responsible for sharing the video if anything happens. Sorting out power of attorney issues before detention is vital, even if the state is likely to refuse a meeting with lawyers on other grounds. The person responsible for releasing the video, family members, and lawyers should all be in contact and aware of the video statement.

It is a travesty of the rule of law that anyone would need to think of preemptively recording their own defence against baseless charges and forced confessions but if more human rights defenders did so then potentially the power of this repressive measure will ultimately be lost through the unmasking of contradictions.

To strengthen digital security for human rights defenders, behavior matters

Article originally appeared on 9 May 2017 as part of the Data and Human Rights discussion at Open Global Rights, and is available here.

Most conversation about digital security for human rights defenders (HRDs) tends to focus on privacy and data protection. This is necessary, but what good is a strong passphrase or Virtual Private Network (VPN) when you are at risk of enforced disappearance and torture by the police? In such situations, even the most seasoned HRD is likely to give up access. A strong digital security strategy adds to protection from physical threats, but for many HRDs operating in hostile environments such threats are sadly inescapable and protection strategies need to be more practical.

The typical emphasis on privacy and data protection means that conventional digital security thinking often stresses technical advice for communication security to prevent detection and HRD detention.

The typical emphasis on privacy and data protection means that conventional digital security thinking often stresses technical advice for communication security to prevent detection and HRD detention. But technical tools only extend so far after an HRD is detained or subjected to torture by police intent on gaining access. I know very tech savvy HRDs who have quickly given over their passphrases at the threat of torture. No one can judge them. In such horrific, and sadly common, scenarios, a more holistic approach to digital security is needed.

Through ongoing support for local initiatives that take a practical approach to digital security, the hope is that more secure behavior will develop in tandem with technology for the authentic holistic security of HRDs in hostile environments.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst, addressed these multiple insecurities in a February 2016 report, calling for HRDs to foster a culture of ‘holistic security’ that interlinks physical security with digital security and psychosocial well-being. The notion of ‘holistic security’ has been gaining traction in HRD protection frameworks since before 2016 but often in otherwise compartmentalized ways.

On the ground, however, this often means transplanting digital security tools from one context into another alongside other physical or psychosocial strategies, and thinking less holistically about the physical and psychosocial realities of digital security.

This problem is crucial for HRDs operating within authoritarian regimes and shrinking civic spaces, where absent the rule of law there are no such legal protections as habeas corpus, the right to counsel, or freedom from torture. And, as Zara Rahman recently articulated, “technologies are sometimes mentioned or adopted not because they are the most strategic or necessarily useful tools for the job,” but due to uninformed pressure.

Take the most common technical advice offered for enhancing digital security: encryption. Most digital security literature recommends, among others, encryption tools like Protonmail, Signal Messenger, or Vera Crypt. Such tools are necessary but insufficient. Yes, encryption done right ensures that only the intended parties have access, protecting data from third-party monitoring, except the most sophisticated and time-intensive intrusion efforts. But this only offers short-term security in authoritarian regimes.

For several years, I have been working with rights defenders in China, and elsewhere, to develop practical approaches to various protection challenges, including digital security. The project I’m part of is based on the active participation of local feedback groups among the target beneficiaries, and is ongoing with support from Reporters Without Borders and others. Initial conclusions of this project arguably offer transferrable value for HRDs in other repressive environments.

After considerable reflection, my collaborators and I have found that more attention to behavior is critical in providing digital security for HRDs in hostile environments. This means addressing how HRDs relate to and act with the digital security tools they choose to use, how HRDs understand local realities, and how HRDs are supported (or not) based on their specific contexts and threats. This can be called localizing a behavioral approach to digital security.

Here are a few examples for securing behavior from our work so far.

For practical purposes, relying on secure communication tools is important under authoritarianism but, once in detention the concern is less about preventing access than limiting what is accessible. HRDs should adopt dedicated emails for work and maintain a Zero Inbox Policy—that is, always deleting content, either manually or through automatic destruction such as offered in Protonmail, or Signal and Telegram for chat-based communication. This should be standard HRD communication behavior.

Another, often-overlooked behavioral issue, is how HRDs delete sensitive information. Encrypting sensitive data from intrusion is meaningless if it is left easily accessible after deletion through file recovery programs. Several HRDs I spoke with recounted that during police interrogations they were questioned based on whole or partially recovered documents they had thought they had deleted. In short, the way we usually ‘delete’ something does not necessarily delete anything.

Ultimately, any approach to digital security must combine increasing security with a realistic understanding of what behavior is practical. For example, realistically, most people aren’t going to remember the login information to sign into every account they hold, including for shopping or friendly chatting. They would be happy for some passphrases or account details to be saved, and would quickly abandon a procedure that requires otherwise. As such, one of the most practical behavioral approaches is maintaining a dual browser strategy. HRDs should keep one browser, say Firefox, for all rights defense work. Here they use the relevant browser extensions and conventional best practices, with automatic erasure upon exit. On the other hand, they should keep a separate personal browser for entertainment, say Chrome or Opera, in which, for example, non-sensitive passwords can be saved for easy use.

The approach should also be local. This means language localization, as far too many technical tools remain available only with English language interfaces, but above all it means contextualization and regionalization. This is in line with a recent piece by Danna Ingleton, on the importance of recognizing agency and centralizing the experiences of HRDs in their own protection.

In this sense, developing practical digital security strategy requires extending a greater degree of agency to the HRDs who are most affected and who will most benefit. One way to achieve this is for donors to support the creation of local feedback groups, which has been the foundation of the project I have been involved with, whether to inform the creation of new versions of existing digital security guidebooks, identify the most practical behavior for how technology is used, or devise bottom up advise for institutional support.

Through ongoing support for local initiatives that take a practical approach to digital security, the hope is that more secure behavior will develop in tandem with technology for the authentic holistic security of HRDs in hostile environments.


Donald Trump’s proposal to slash UN funding: a threat to international peace and security

Originally published on 24 March 2017 at Open Democracy. Here.

On April first the United States assumes the rotating monthly presidency of the United Nations Security Council amid widespread alarm over talk from US President Donald Trump that his government is considering drastically reducing its financial contributions and involvement in the UN. This could pose a serious blow to the global body tasked with international peace and security.

In mid March, the Trump administration released its “America First” budget proposal. The full budget will not be released until May and will still need to be approved by congress. While the budget proposal has met with bipartisan criticism, longstanding mostly-Republican hostility toward the United Nations and tough talk from the administration gives rise for serious concern. In nearly Orwellian vocabulary, the Trump budget calls for the pursuit of ‘peace through strength,’ while attacking the very institutions working to preserve peace.

In nearly Orwellian vocabulary, the Trump budget calls for the pursuit of ‘peace through strength,’ while attacking the very institutions working to preserve peace. It calls, inter alia, for the elimination of funding for the United States Institute of Peace and a 28 percent reduction in funding to the Department of State. This despite a letter from over 120 retired military leaders addressing the security imperative of diplomacy and development. The budget also calls for unspecified reductions to the United Nations and a cap on US contributions, to not exceed 25 percent of the total peacekeeping budget.

Taken as a reflection of the administration’s priorities, this budget proposal might as well be the pyre upon which peace is sacrificed to strength.

At present, the United States contributes around $2.5 billion, nearly 29 percent of the total $7.87 billion peacekeeping budget. The other top five contributing countries are China (10.29 percent), Japan (9.68 percent), Germany (6.39 percent), and France (6.31 percent).

The UN regular budget for 2016-2017 is $5.4 billion, of which the United States pays 22 percent, around $1.2 billion.

Voluntary contributions cover the humanitarian, development, and human rights work of the United Nations. This includes the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the High Commissioner for Refugees. These are vital functions for the preservation of peace and security and yet a draft executive order leaked in January 2017 hinted at a 40 percent cut in US voluntary contributions.

The “America First” budget proposal is vague in exact reductions to the UN. However, in what Colum Lynch at Foreign Policy describes as an unprecedented retreat from international operations, State Department officials have reportedly been instructed to slash up to 60 percent of all assessed and voluntary contributions, including a $1 billion reduction in peacekeeping contributions.

Meanwhile, in a clear signal of priorities, the Trump administration has called for a $52 billion increase in defense spending, the United States already spending nearly as much on defense as the next 14 countries combined.

Explain that

The Trump administration is attempting to legitimize its unprecedented retreat from the UN with claims that its present contributions are disproportionate, a hollow argument. As Rosa Freedman, professor of law and conflict at Redding University, argues, “given that the US makes up more than 24 percent of the world’s total GDP, it’s actually contributing less than it should.”

Member State contributions, established by the UN Charter, are apportioned by the General Assembly based on a formula taking into account such things as the size of economy and per capita income. The five permanent members of the Security Council (US, UK, France, Russia, and China) are furthermore required to pay additional shares for peacekeeping given their responsibility for maintaining international peace and security. However, as pointed out by Anjali Dayal at Political Violence at a Glance, “an existing Congressional cap already sets the US’s annual contribution to the peacekeeping budget below the assessed contribution the US is required to make as a UN member.”

Budget cuts on the magnitude threatened by the United States will have the biggest impact on voluntary contributions, particularly important for supporting humanitarian and development efforts. But what is also at stake is the impact on needed reforms already under way, including the mainstreaming of human security, which will require leadership and diplomatic support alongside financing.

An imperfect system

The UN is not perfect. Perhaps two of the most damning examples of recent UN failure are negligence by Nepali peacekeepers in Haiti in 2010 – over 700,000 people were infected and more than 8,500 died from cholera – and a pattern of sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers, especially in the Central African Republic since 2013.

In large part, the pattern of sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeeping forces across missions has been prolonged by the past hesitation from the UN to name and shame countries whose forces are guilty of such crimes. This, of course, has been a product of political expediency. But this is slowly changing, as the UN is increasingly likely to publically name countries whose troops perpetrate such atrocities and to send guilty contingent commanders or whole contingents home. It is moving to encourage troop-contributing countries to conduct trials in domestic courts, although this remains a challenge, and to refuse future peacekeepers from those countries that fail to uphold human rights obligations. Scholars are also contributing great work to tackling such peacekeeping failures, for example Sabrina Karim and Kyle Beardsley propose a comprehensive gender-sensitive approach to reform in Equal Opportunity Peacekeeping.

There are real concerns but they require reform and leadership by powerful Member States, not abandonment.

Improving the UN now is especially needed in the face of what some UN officials are describing as the worst humanitarian crisis since the end of World War II. The threats of terrorism, the destabilizing effects of climate change, poverty, and gross discrimination that trigger conflict and drive mass displacement, are all serious tests to the preservation of peace and security. But they require more than engorging military budgets.

To tackle such challenges, the new Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, has pledged comprehensive reforms of UN strategy to build and sustain peace. Guterres has also pledged management reform, including accountability, the protection of UN whistleblowers, and gender parity at higher-level positions.

In February 2017, Guterres announced the creation of an internal review board that will move forward with reforms to UN peace and security strategy. The result of this review is expected in June and will produce recommendations that may have financial implications, the implementation of which could be severely limited by the withdrawal of US funds and other support.

The new US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, has issued similar calls for reform, especially over corruption and accountability for sexual abuse. But her government’s hinted reduction or ending of support for “international organizations whose missions do not substantially advance US foreign policy interests” risks holding the global body hostage to the nationalist interests of “America First” that prioritize American military might over multilateralism and human security.

Rather than approaching peace through strength, as the Trump budget shortsightedly proposes to do, the new administrations’ approach to peace and security must be peace though prevention.

Peace through prevention

In April 2016, the General Assembly and Security Council adopted a joint resolution establishing the concept of ‘sustaining peace.’ The resolution is a reflection of four reports, including the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations and the report on the implementation of resolution 1325 women, peace, and security. Arguably, in drawing together a variety of concepts the year before both the new Secretary General and US President were to assume office, the resolution served as a placeholder for a conversation about the future of the UN in peace and security.

Seeking to operationalize prevention, the resolution calls for “activities aimed at preventing the outbreak, escalation, continuation and recurrence of conflict, addressing root causes… and emphasizing that sustaining peace is a shared task and responsibility…[that] should flow through all three pillars of the United Nations.” The three pillars are human rights, peace and security, and development. They are interconnected and interdependent.

It emphasizes the importance of a comprehensive approach through the prevention of conflict and its root causes, poverty eradication, social and sustainable development, inclusive dialogue, rule of law, transitional justice, gender equality, and the protection of human rights.

Such comprehensive measures by definition require more than the strict reliance on military might and narrow national interest-based approach to international peace and security as put forward by the US Government.

Speaking at the annual high-level panel discussion on human rights mainstreaming in February 2017, Oscar Fernandez-Taranco, assistant secretary general for peacebuilding support, highlighted the need for inclusive cooperation between Member States.

The problem with the US fetish for a bloated defense budget, threatening to retreat from international diplomacy, or constrict funds to the UN is what that would mean for cooperation toward more comprehensive peacebuilding approaches. It could well lead to the opposite, limiting peace operations to stabilization and a minimal approach to peace and security that disregards governance, human rights, or development.

The other big factor, says Ian Johnstone, professor of international law at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, is countering violent extremism (CVE). If this becomes the principle motivator to establishing peace operations, we are likely to only see significant political support for new missions where there is the threat or perceived threat of terrorism. CVE needs to occur but, again, narrow military solutions and unilateralism are ultimately self-defeating.

The threat of violent extremism presents a dilemma for traditional peace operations, because CVE is generally outside of established mandate parameters. But, as Johnstone writes at Peace Operations Review, drawing from the 2015 Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism, addressing the challenges of CVE within peacebuilding efforts calls for adaptability and creativity. This is precisely where a peace through prevention approach has value, to not only address insecurity but also its root causes through poverty reduction, inclusive dialogue, and the mainstreaming of gender and human rights concerns. Unfortunately xenophobic rhetoric from the Trump administration signals in the opposite direction.

Ultimately, the impact of the Trump administration on the ability of the UN to develop a more comprehensive and preventative approach to peace and security will be based as much on signaling as on financial constraints.

Looking forward

President Trump’s “America First” budget proposal, in name and stated financial commitments, reads as an indictment of multilateralism. The alarming reduction of budgetary contributions to the United Nations will certainly be amended in congressional review, although general hostility toward the UN among the Republican controlled congress indicates some reduction in US contributions is almost certain. However, whatever the ultimate figure it is less likely to derail reform or have as devastating an impact as the signaling of a US no longer interested in the UN.

Cooperation and support from powerful Member States is vital for the UN to serve its function of preserving international peace and security, promoting development, and protecting human rights. This requires diplomacy. Of course, this is not to completely discount the significance of being a membership-based body reliant on dues to hire personnel and support aforementioned peacebuilding efforts.

With the United States assuming the April presidency of the Security Council, notably before the White House issues its formal budget proposal in May, it presents an opportunity for the US to reevaluate its priorities and leadership role in line with the trend of peace through prevention. How the US uses its Security Council presidency, what thematic meetings it convenes in New York for example, will offer further clarity on administration priorities and may provide chances for the other members of the Security Council to negotiate those priorities. Arguably, it also provides non-Security Council government and non-governmental representatives the opportunity to lobby the United States regarding peace through prevention.

A US withdrawal now stands to upset the reforms in theory and practice currently underway and to potentially derail the future of international peace and security.

Japan Detains Movement Leader to Silence Struggle Against US Military Bases

Originally published on 14 March 2017 at Waging Nonviolence. Here.

On October 17, Hiroji Yamashiro was arrested for cutting a wire fence at a protest against a U.S. military base in Okinawa. He has been held in detention ever since. Yamashiro, the chairman of the Okinawa Peace Movement Center, has been a fixture of the nonviolent opposition to military base expansion on the island for years.

The 64-year-old Yamashiro had undergone cancer treatment in 2015, and medical tests two months into his detention revealed a decline in his health. Nevertheless, since his arrest almost five months ago, he has been held in pre-trial detention — mostly in solitary confinement, denied bail and any contact with his family. Three days after his arrest, the authorities added additional charges of obstruction and assault. A third charge of obstruction was added a month later, for an incident that allegedly took place almost a year earlier.

The two others arrested with Yamashiro also remain in detention.

“Prosecutors have repeatedly gone through pre-trial procedures that are usually not required for petty offenses such as the ones Mr. Yamashiro is accused of, and every time they do that, the date of the first hearing has been pushed back,” explained one of Yamashiro’s lawyers, Shunji Miyake. “I think the prosecutors’ intention is clearly to prolong Mr. Yamashiro’s detention.”

Retired judge Isamu Nakasone agreed, saying, “It’s clear that the purpose of detaining him is to stop the anti-base protests … He took a central role in opposing the military base. His detention is a warning to others, just as construction enters a key phase.”

This January, Amnesty International launched an urgent action campaign for his release, noting, “the arrest of Hiroji Yamashiro, a symbolic opposition figure, has had a chilling effect on others who are peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly. Some activists now hesitate to join the protest for fear of reprisals.”

At a press conference on February 18, six prefectural parliamentarians released a statement reiterating calls for Yamashiro’s immediate release. Their statement read, in part: “This is a political crackdown on the struggle in Henoko and Takae and nonviolent resistance by Uchinanchu [Okinawan people] who are seeking peace and the restoration of their dignity.”

Despite coordinated advocacy, the Japanese Supreme Court rejected an appeal last month for Yamashiro’s release, pending trial. The opening hearing is scheduled for March 17.

A history of resistance

Today, Okinawa hosts some 30 separate American military installations, some in densely populated areas, that are not popular with the local population.

Yamashiro was leading resistance against the relocation of a U.S. airbase from Futenma to Henoko Bay, which is particularly unpopular. According to one survey, 84 percent of Okinawans are in opposition.

In Okinawa resistance to the U.S. military presence has a long and complex history.

In 1952, Japan and the United States signed the Treaty of San Francisco, which ended post-war U.S. occupation of Japan but allowed for the retention of military control over Okinawa. By the time the United States returned overall administrative authority for Okinawa to Tokyo in 1972, 27 years of military occupation and impunity had left a deep impact and also a culture of civil resistance.

In 1955, amid widespread forced demolition and eviction at the hands of U.S. troops, Shoko Ahagon — who lived from 1901-2002 — began organizing Okinawans in resistance. Remembered by some today as the “Gandhi of Okinawa,” Ahagon, a Christian, was inspired by Gandhi’s struggle against British rule in India. In July 1955, Ahagon organized a seven-month march around the main island of Okinawa to raise awareness of mistreatment at the hands of U.S. forces. It was dubbed the “Beggars’ March” in local, U.S.-controlled media. Ahagon also drew up nonviolent principles for resisting the U.S. military that continued to influence the movement even after Okinawa was returned to Japan in 1972, including Yamashiro, who adheres to them.

Some argue that Okinawa’s objection to U.S. military base construction is about more than uncompleted post-colonial independence.

Taisuke Komatsu, U.N. Advocacy Coordinator for the International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism, argues that the issue of U.S. military occupation is more about the structural discrimination Okinawans have suffered for decades. He described the situation as a slap in the face to a people who have been neglected by Tokyo for so long.

The delegitimization of Okinawan lives has been further exacerbated by a history of impunity for sexual violence perpetrated against the local population by U.S. military personnel, beginning in the 1950s when six-year-old Yumiko Nagayama was raped and murdered. Several high-profile cases in the intervening decades remain central tenants of anti-U.S. base grievances from Okinawans.

Looking at Tokyo’s present disregard for local civil and political opposition to further base construction reinforces Komatsu’s claims of second-class treatment by the central government.

In January 2013, all of Okinawa’s 41 municipal governors and members of its parliament submitted a petition to Tokyo to block the transfer of the U.S. airbase to Henoko Bay. The next year, rather than ceding to organized local opposition, Tokyo announced it would move forward with its plans.

Following the announcement, protests swelled to several thousand in September and October in 2014, although some had already been occupying the space since 1996, when the proposed relocation was first discussed. Activists swarmed the bay in kayaks. Others marched to nearby U.S. Marine Corps Camp Schwab. Campaigners organized speeches in which Okinawan legislators and others denounced the re-militarization of Japan under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the ongoing discrimination of Okinawans. The authorities responded with disproportionate force.

In November 2014, Takeshi Onaga’s election as governor of Okinawa was seen as a victory for the peace movement. Onaga had campaigned on strict opposition to military base construction, unlike incumbent Gov. Nakaima who was sympathetic to base expansion. Before the election, a high-level cabinet secretary said the results of the election wouldn’t impact Tokyo’s plans, and in January 2015, Tokyo kept its promise, announcing that the airbase relocation would still continue.

Since then, demonstrators have maintained a 24-hour sit-in, swarmed the bay in kayaks and organized large-scale demonstrations in Okinawa’s capital. In June 2016, a few weeks after an American working at another U.S. airbase was arrested for raping and murdering a Japanese woman, an estimated 65,000 people demonstrated in the Okinawan capital against U.S. military base expansion.

The Okinawa Peace Movement Center, Hiroji Yamashiro’s organization, has been active in leading nonviolent resistance against the Henoko relocation. His apparent politically-motivated and lengthy detention marks a concerning escalation in Tokyo’s abusive treatment of nonviolent Okinawan activists, which must be countered by an escalation in resistance tactics.

An uncertain future

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has frequently cited the security concerns of an unpredictable North Korea and increasingly aggressive China as justification for what many have argued is a policy of re-militarization. This influences his administration’s unflinching support for military base expansion in Okinawa regardless of local civil and political opposition.

Japan is clearly entitled to ensure its national security, but international standards are clear that human rights are fundamental to peace and security. It is a shame that Japan seems willing to embrace authoritarian tactics to suppress nonviolent activism in the name of security. Japan’s human rights obligations toward Okinawans resisting further base construction will surely be tested by the new relationship between Abe and the United States under President Trump.

Unfortunately, with the wave of state-level Republican-backed anti-protest bills sweeping the United States and Trump’s own embrace of the criminalizing or delegitimizing of nonviolent activists, Japan is unlikely to find itself rebuked for its repressive handling of Okinawan dissidents unless alternative channels of pressure are strengthened.

In early March, several supporters gathered in New York outside the Japanese consulate, holding banners calling for Yamashiro’s release. A week later, on March 10, Akira Maeda of the Japanese Workers’ Committee for Human Rights criticized Japan before the Human Rights Council in Geneva over its treatment of Yamashiro. Such gestures are an important scaling up of tactics in civil and political resistance to Japan’s persecution of nonviolent activists, aimed at attracting broader international attention.

When local channels of resistance stall, such tactics are often capable of generating new allies and coalitions to pressure domestic governments. What is needed is not only the growth of solidarity networks but also the expanding of resistance efforts that target Tokyo’s international pillars of support. Utilizing U.N. human rights mechanisms — such as the Human Rights Council or the Special Rapporteurs on the freedom of expression, assembly or human rights defenders — are worthwhile moves from Japanese civil society.

Activists in the United States are in a position to pressure the U.S. government — either through letters to Congress regarding U.S.-Japan relations or by including such demands in active efforts against broader U.S. military expansion.

A strong showing of international support for Yamashiro — especially through actions like the Amnesty International letter campaign to Prime Minister Abe, along with a general campaign for an end to Tokyo’s persecution of nonviolent Okinawan activists — may contribute to holding Tokyo accountable. Ultimately, this is not only about Yamashiro’s release but also a guarantee from Tokyo that it will respect the rights of everyone engaged in nonviolence resistance.

Exposing falsehoods in Chinese law: Tibetan language advocate Tashi Wangchuk is no separatist

Originally published at Hong Kong Free Press on 27 January 2017. Here.

A year ago today, Tashi Wangchuk disappeared. He was recently indicted and is now awaiting trial, facing a 15-year sentence for the baseless charge of inciting separatism.

His crime: advocating Tibetan language rights in an interview with the New York Times – hardly a threat to national security.

tashi wangchuk

On 27 January 2015, two cars filled with men not wearing uniforms or presenting identification arrived at Tashi’s home, claiming he needed to go with them to handle some business registration. Two hours later, he was in police custody at the Yushu Public Security Bureau, locked into a tiger chair where he was kept until the following evening, continuously interrogated. They threatened him and his family. They demanded if he was in touch with Tibetan separatists abroad. A few days later, in a different detention center, he was subjected to a week of constant interrogation, during which he was repeatedly beaten by two Tibetan police officers. His family wasn’t notified of his detention until 24 March, 57 days later, when they were told that he was being charged with inciting separatism.

The charge arises from a distorted investigation into the New York Times video carried out in February by the Tibet research branch of the Ministry of Public Security, well before Tashi’s first meeting with his lawyers in June. According to the February investigation, in the video Tashi had intentionally acted to incite separatism, break Tibetan social stability, and discredit China internationally.

Tashi has also been active on Weibo and his last post before being detained is illustrative of the type of vocabulary in the video that the government claims discredits China and incites separatism. As reported by the New York Times, on 24 January, Tashi reposted a comment urging Chinese legislators to enhance bilingual education and hire more bilingual civil servants – hardly the rhetoric of an insurrectionist. The charge against Tashi is absurd.

Tashi does not advocate separatism. He only sought to promote Tibetan language education, guaranteed under Chinese and international law, and to use Chinese law to pressure officials to faithfully implement Tibetan language rights.

International standards are quite clear. Advocating Tibetan language rights is not a crime. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which China has signed, holds that minorities shall not be denied the right, among others, to use their own language. The Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, which provides further guidance on international standards, also calls on states to take positive measures to create favorable conditions for minorities to develop their language.

In 2013, UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues Rita Izsák voiced concern that defending minority language rights has been associated with separatist movements by some countries where the unity of the state is largely influenced by the political narrative of a “single national language as a means of reinforcing sovereignty, national unity and territorial integrity.” In such countries, assimilationist narratives often extend to every aspect of minority culture, from language to religion, subsuming it under the oppressive myth of national unity through the forced adoption of majority culture. Minority language, as with folklore or custom, are downplayed to the level of tourist attraction for majority amusement. This is widespread in China.

Rather than treating efforts to reclaim rights for minority language and culture as acts of separation, Izsák explains, protecting the language rights of minorities is not only a human rights obligation but also essential to good governance, conflict prevention, and social stability.

That Chinese law supposedly guarantees minority language rights only makes the charges against Tashi all the more ludicrous. The constitution provides that all nationalities have the freedom to use and develop their own written and spoken language. This is also protected in the Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law, which goes on to note educational organizations with mostly ethnic minority students should strive to rely on textbooks and instruction in their own language. The national plan on education reform places similar emphasis on linguistic minority rights. It states that no effort shall be spared to advance bilingual teaching and that minority rights to education in their native language shall be ensured.

Despite such protections, China has incrementally repressed Tibetan language rights with the same increasing ferocity with which it has assaulted virtually every other aspects of Tibetan culture.

Tashi told the New York Times that his passion for language rights campaigning, in part, began with his desire to find a place for his two nieces to study Tibetan after local officials closed a small school where monks had offered Tibetan language classes. Public schools throughout Tibet have largely abandoned bilingual education, approaching Tibetan the same way it would a foreign language, says the International Campaign for Tibet.

Regulations in 2010, that severely limited the use of Tibetan language in schools sparked major protests in Qinghai and lead to an urgent appeal before the Human Rights Council. In 2015, regulations on bilingual education instructed officials to “unswervingly implement the national common language [Mandarin]…to ensure that minority students master and use the basic national common language.” Such policies give rise to the accusations that advocacy for minority language is a separatist attack on politically crafted national unity. This is wrong.

On 10 December, international human rights day, U.S. Ambassador Max Baucus asked, “China’s constitution states that ‘all nationalities have the freedom to use and develop their own spoken and written languages.’  So I ask why Tashi Wangchuk, a Chinese citizen who is deeply interested in education, remains in jail for his peaceful advocacy of Tibetan language education.”

Now, more than a month later, with the stakes for Tashi highly increased, the answer to Ambassador Baucus remains the same, because in China the law only matters as far as it suits the interests of the state.

Indicting Tashi for insisting on nothing more than for the government to uphold its own laws on language rights is as much an indictment against China’s claims to be a laws-based society. Tashi should be released immediately. Instead, the state now seems likely to condemn him to prison to cover its own falsehoods.

Time’s up: China must release imprisoned lawyer Wang Quanzhang

This oped was originally published at Hong Kong Free Press on 9 December 2016.

Where is Wang Quanzhang? After over a year in secret detention it is time for China to end this tragedy. The State must release him, drop all charges, and initiate the process of compensation and reparation. Anything less is to compound the already inexcusable injustice against this brave citizen and selfless human rights defender.

However, on 5 December, rather than releasing him, the prosecutor again sent his case back to the police, seemingly due to a lack of evidence. Wang’s ongoing refusal to cooperate in a sham trial, coupled with China’s fear that his resistance will inspire others, has lead the authorities to prolong his enforced disappearance, hoping through maintaining terror on him and his family they will force a trial without incident. This symbolism is an important demonstration of power in China’s current campaign to annihilate the human rights community, of which Wang has been a rising figure for years.

wang quanzhang

I first met Wang Quanzhang in 2008, following the Beijing Olympics, assisting victims of the crackdown on the Human Rights Torch Relay. From 2009 until early 2014, we worked together closely as part of the Chinese Urgent Action Working Group (China Action).

I often facilitated meetings between Wang and foreign diplomats in Beijing to discuss specific human rights concerns in China.

One thing I remember about Wang is his driving. I think about the contrast of him being the slowest, most timid driver I’ve ever ridden with to his assertiveness in demanding human rights for Chinese citizens, especially the most marginalized whom others feared to defend.

Since August 2015, Wang has been denied contact with his family and lawyers. We won’t know the full extent of his suffering until he is permitted to speak freely. Still, Wang’s case is emblematic of everything wrong with China’s empty rhetoric of being a country governed by the rule of law.

Wang first went missing on 10 July 2015, following the “709 Crackdown.” Although the police claimed to have abducted him along with his Fengrui Law Firm colleagues, he had actually succeeded in evading abduction and spent the next three weeks in hiding.

china lawyer crackdown 709

China claims it is a country ruled by law—it goes without saying that only in authoritarian States are lawyers rounded up or forced into hiding—but through his years of human rights defense Wang was no stranger to State violence and this was not the first time he was forced into hiding. In 2012, after winning over one million RMB in compensation for villagers in Zhejiang, local police traveled to Beijing looking for revenge. Aware of their persecutory intent, Wang spent many days in hiding, sleeping in his car alone in Beijing.

On 3 August 2015, police intercepted a communication between Wang and a friend, revealing his location. First held in criminal detention, on 31 August he was placed under “Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location,” a euphemism for State-sanctioned enforced disappearances.

Until Wang was officially arrested on 7 January 2016, on charges of ‘subverting state power,’ which carries the possibility of life in prison, his whereabouts were unknown. But even after authorities claimed to have transferred him to the Tianjin Number Two Detention Center, nobody has been allowed to see or speak with him, despite numerous attempts by his wife and lawyers.

Wang’s wife, Li Wenzu, explains that in the first six months it was like there was no daylight but as support for her and her husband increased it made her stronger. While she was able to become more positive, the pain in her heart, she says, is with her every day.

Chinese law provides the right to meet with legal representation and family members, but allows for exceptions for national security crimes. There is a sick contradiction for the State to accuse Wang of threatening national security while it terrorizes its own citizens.

tianjin protest 709 liu ermin

In February 2016, Wang’s wife, son, and sister, along with Li Heping’s family and others spent the Lantern Festival outside the detention center where they believed their loved ones were being held. They screamed Wang’s name in hope that their voices might carry some light into the darkness of his isolation.

On other occasions, Li Wenzu and others have been intimidated or detained following visits to the detention center or the prosecutor’s office, or subjected to other harassment. In March, Tianjin Police claimed Wang had instructed that his bankcard be kept with the police, denying his wife access to much needed finances. Li Wenzu has been forcibly evicted several times as police have followed her from residence to residence threatening her landlords. Their son was denied enrollment in kindergarten following pressure from the police this summer.

“Danger is not just our feeling, it is our experience,” says Li Wenzu, “We are pushed, beaten, hit in the face, taken to the police station, threatened, monitored, all those situations make us feel in danger all the time.”

Not only has Wang been denied his right to meet with his lawyers, in early August Tianjin police posted a statement claiming Wang had dismissed his own lawyer in favor of one appointed by the authorities. This claim is absurd for those of us who know Wang, who has been insistent since at least 2010 that he would never accept a State-appointed lawyer. Since 2012, Wang has arranged for lawyer Cheng Hai to represent him. Wang even left a note with friends that under no circumstances would he dismiss his lawyer.

Li Wenzu

So absurd are the charges against Wang that even the police can’t seem to conjure evidence without resorting to authoritarian measures of collective intimidation and reprisal against friends, family members, and lawyers. When another former colleague, Peter Dahlin, was held for three weeks in January, his interrogators tried to convince him to denounce Wang, repeatedly calling him a criminal. Further demonstrating their contempt for legal independence, police have even attempted to pressure Wang’s lawyers to incriminate their client, that is before they decided to just illegally dismiss them.

Beginning in March, police and State security have been relentlessly pressuring Wang’s wife, sister, and parents into recording videos either denouncing his imaginary crimes or pleading with him to confess. They eventually succeeded in early November, forcing his father to release a video urging his son to confess. On the positive side, such measures indicate that Wang has resisted efforts by the State to coerce a forced confession, on the other hand such efforts often mean torture. This is an unspeakable injustice but also a testament to Wang’s strength of will.

Forced confessions are not only about rigging the criminal justice system in favor of the preferred State outcome, but since many watching know when a confession has been forced they are also about breaking the will of the defendant and showing that China has done so. Forced confessions are meant to condemn and communicate.

Wang’s refusal to confess to false charges or cooperate in a sham trial is his latest act of defending the rule of law, while Beijing’s ongoing persecution is a testament to their contempt for the same. The State has no evidence and no excuse.

There is only one acceptable outcome. Wang must be immediately released and the State must begin the process of compensation and reparation. Anything less only reaffirms the emptiness of China’s rhetoric on the rule of law.

The People’s Republic of the Disappeared

This article was originally published at The Diplomat on 6 December 2016.

On November 21, human rights defender Jiang Tianyong disappeared. He was supposed to arrive in Beijing at 6:30 am the following day but when his train pulled into the station he was not onboard. Attempting to file a missing person report at their local police station in Zhengzhou, his family was told to go to Beijing for answers. At the time of writing, Jiang’s whereabouts remain unknown.

Jiang is just the latest victim in Beijing’s terror campaign against the human rights community, which has seen the disappearance of countless individuals into a shadowy network of secret detention. Over the last decade, China has worked to normalize enforced disappearances behind a veneer of the rule of law.

Enforced Disappearances

The International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances, Article 2, defines enforced disappearances as the taking of someone by the State or agents acting on behalf of the State, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the abduction or the concealment of their fate or whereabouts, which places that person outside the protection of the law. Once a person is disappeared, the risk of torture is high.

The Human Rights Council has held that an enforced disappearance can begin with either an illegal or initially legal detention. The United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances states that “there is no time limit, no matter how short, for an enforced disappearance to occur,” and that an enforced disappearance is a continuing offense as long as the fate or whereabouts of the individual in question is concealed.

Because they obviously suffer the worst, family members of the disappeared are considered victims and entitled to, inter alia, the right to truth regarding the fate of the disappeared. The State has an obligation to protect them against intimidation or reprisal. In China, however, family members of the disappeared have not only been denied their right to truth, they are often targeted by the police. The wives of the disappeared human rights lawyers Wang Quanzhang, Li Heping, Xie Yanyi, and Xie Yang have been subjected to reprisal following attempts to gain information about their husbands in addition to being the targets of more general harassment.

Wang’s wife Li Wenzu, for example, was forcibly evicted and her son was denied enrollment in elementary school following pressure from the police. In other cases family members have themselves been disappeared. One example is Wang Yu’s son Bao Zhuoxuan who, several months after his parents were disappeared, went missing following his attempt to escape into Myanmar along with two other rights defenders, who have likewise both been held in secret since October 2015.

Enforced disappearances constitute a gross violation of human rights and an international crime, so severe in fact that under certain circumstances it may amount to a crime against humanity. Article 7 of the Rome Statute, which is the basis for the International Criminal Court, holds that enforced disappearances may amount to a crime against humanity when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population.

Unsurprisingly, there are no circumstances that permit for exceptions. Yet legislating exceptions is precisely what China has attempted, one might argue, quite systematically.

From Black Jails to Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location

In March 2003, 27-year-old migrant worker Sun Zhigang died in police custody in Guangzhou, having been beaten to death. He had been held for three days under an administrative procedure known as custody and repatriation, which allowed police to hold an individual without trial. Increasingly unpopular, it was abolished following national outcry over Sun’s death. Agents of the State would no longer be permitted to arbitrarily detain individuals or hold them in secret. Or would they?

In 2009, my former NGO, China Action, followed by others, documented numerous cases of individuals having been held in secret black jails around China in the years following the abolition of custody and repatriation. Held in State-owned hotels, the backs of restaurants, or psychiatric facilities, individuals abducted into black jails were seldom presented with charges or told how long they would be deprived of liberty; they were not permitted legal representation nor were their relatives notified of their abduction. However, unlike the abolished custody and repatriation administrative procedure, there was no flawed provision permitting the existence of black jails.

During the 2009 Universal Periodic Review before the Human Rights Council, several international NGOs and governments raised the issue of black jails, while China flatly denied their existence. But since 2009 State media has occasionally been allowed to report on their existence, some responsible individuals have been sentenced, and rights defenders have even succeeded in winning compensation for some victims. However, in 2011 China drew serious concerns from the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances for a wave of disappearances that included Teng Biao, Tang Jitian, and Jiang Tianyong.

While black jails served a purpose in maintaining the equilibrium of State violence against petitioners and human rights defenders that had been lost with the abolition of custody and repatriation, their ongoing extrajudicial presence presented an obstacle even to China’s hollow rhetoric of the rule of law. The State would need a way to mask arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance behind a veneer of legality.

China’s amended Criminal Procedure Law, which came into force on January 1, 2013, introduced, at Article 73, “Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location” (RSDL).  It states, for such crimes as endangering national security, when enforcement in the residence may impede the investigation, it may be enforced in a designated location other than a detention center. It also holds that the family shall be notified within 24 hours, unless there is no way to do so. And at Article 33, it guarantees that all detained suspects have the right to a lawyer, who once requested shall be granted a meeting within 48 hours, Article 37.

Although meant to sound like soft detention, when combined with other recent laws the intention is clear: the State has sought to legislate exceptions normalizing enforced disappearances.

Three days after his July 10, 2015 abduction, police informed activist Gou Guoping’s wife that he was being held under RSDL. As China Change reports, at first she was ecstatic, believing it to be a less severe form of detention, but after she contacted the police she was told, “The case is under investigation. The whereabouts of the person is a secret.” Another common refrain is that there are no records of the detained, just as Wang Quanzhang’s wife, Li Wenzu, and lawyers were told when attempting to contact Wang in detention.

Although Article 37 guarantees the right to promptly meet with a lawyer, it also states that in national security cases this right may be revoked at the discretion of the police — a transparent exception considering RSDL is specifically designed for national security cases, among others. This is particularly troubling due to the conflation of national security crimes with human rights defense, apparent in the use of national security charges within the “709 Crackdown” on human rights lawyers beginning in July 2015. This trend is certain to continue unless the National Security Law is amended or repealed.

In 2015, China continued its attempts to systematize such exceptions. The Provisions on People’s Procuratorates’ Oversight of Residential Surveillance in a Designated Location ostensibly created oversight to prevent abuses by allowing a complaints mechanism for lawyers and family members, Article 7. While Article 19 guarantees weekly inspection by State prosecutors, it adds that such inspections must not impede police investigation.

Under the above, the police are not only afforded the right to deny lawyers and family members access under the pretext of national security but may even refuse the State prosecutor access to determine the legality of the detention or whether the individual is being ill-treated. There is no question that this places the individual outside the protection of the law, and the denial of access to lawyers or family members is tantamount to the concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the individual.

The case of Jiang Tianyong is emblematic. Since disappearing on November 21, his whereabouts remain unknown at the time of writing. His wife told the New York Times, “I hope the government could at least tell us, his family, where he is and what crimes he has committed… At least we should know his whereabouts.”

At the time of his disappearance, Jiang had been visiting the wife of another human rights lawyer, Xie Yang, who himself has been held almost entirely incommunicado since July 11, 2015, a target of the “709 Crackdown.” Afterward, Xie was held in secret RSDL for six months and formally arrested in January 2016. When he was granted a meeting with his lawyer months later, in late July, the police were clear; his lawyer was there solely to convince Xie to confess to baseless charges. Xie reported having been tortured in police custody. Now Jiang appears to have likewise been disappeared, leaving many speculating that authorities will soon announce he too has been placed under RSDL.

In its 2015 review of China, the Committee Against Torture stated, as a matter of urgency, that China should repeal “the provisions of the Criminal Procedure Law that allow suspects to be held de facto incommunicado, at a designated location, while under residential surveillance.”

China, however, appears to be doubling down on the systematization of enforced disappearances. In its so-called National Human Rights Action Plan (2016-2020), China states that “places of surveillance shall be regularized…” and promises “seriously implementing the system of residential surveillance at a designated location.” Recalling that even ostensibly legal detention can amount to an enforced disappearance, this language is no assurance. In light of the lack of authentic oversight and accountability, the trend in abuse, and the overall vagueness of the law, such statements should only be taken with increased concern. Serious changes are needed.

What Should Happen

China should immediately release all individuals held in secret under residential surveillance at a designated location and all other victims of enforced disappearance.

China has an obligation to ensure the right to non-repetition, which means eliminating the circumstances that permitted the disappearances in the first place.

The Provisions on Oversight must be immediately amended to ensure police may not deny weekly inspection by State prosecutors, who must uphold their obligations to assess the legality of detention and act on complaints by lawyers, relatives, and defendants.

China must clarify its definition and use of national security crimes. The extreme vagueness in the law allows for the State to claim anything it wants. This is doubly concerning when such allegations are part of manipulated legislation that attempts to legalize human rights violations on national security grounds. Again, international law is clear that there are no exceptions when it comes to enforced disappearances.

Most importantly, the Criminal Procedure Law must be amended or the sections that permit for disappearances must be repealed.

China must properly investigate and prosecute those responsible for perpetrating enforced disappearances. The victims of enforced disappearance, including family members, are entitled to compensation and reparation under international law.

Finally, China should ratify the Convention on Enforced Disappearances, and issue a standing invitation to the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances.