Almost three weeks ago, on November 9th, Emma Reilly received a letter informing her that she was being dismissed from her position at the United Nations. For the 42-year-old Irish woman, it marked the end of a nine-year career at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. It was also the culmination of a long saga that shed a harsh light on the world’s most important human rights body and, in particular, on its dealings with powerful member states who are themselves human rights abusers.
The reason for Reilly’s dismissal, according to the letter, was that, contrary to direct instructions, she had engaged in “illicit communications with outside parties regarding matters of official activity” from the United Nations. This relates to a number of interviews she has given journalists, as well as some social media posts and contacts with representatives from UN member states. In all of these conversations and posts, the topic was the same: Reilly’s allegation that the Human Rights Council named China the names of Uighur dissidents.
As Reilly’s protests grew louder in recent years, criticism of China also grew
Reilly, who is from Belfast, said she first observed the practice in March 2013 when she was working on the major standard event on the council’s calendar: the three-year session when states come to Geneva to review their progress on currency defend the rights at home. She says she received an email from a Chinese diplomat asking for “a favor” in confirming that “Chinese anti-government separatists” had applied for accreditation for an upcoming meeting. The 13 people, including well-known Uighurs in exile, could pose a threat to China and the UN, according to Reilly. She says she wanted to say no but was outvoted. Reilly says she later learned that this was common practice in China. “The excuse I received in 2013 was not to increase the Chinese distrust of the UN Human Rights Office, but that does not explain the extent to which the entire UN leadership has supported this policy over the years,” says Reilly from Paris where she lives now.
Whatever the reason, she believes the practice – which the UN does not deny – puts dissidents at risk. With this information, she says, Beijing could put pressure on their families, including through arrest or torture, to get them to cancel their performances in Geneva.
While Reilly’s protests have grown louder in recent years, criticism of China for its suppression of the Muslim Uighur population in northwestern Xinjiang Province has also grown. The Human Rights Council was one of the main forums for this criticism. China, which won the council election last year, worked to pressurize states to encourage abandonment of civil and political rights, and even to oppose the idea that human rights should be the subject of multilateral debate. UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet was negotiating access to Xinjiang shortly after taking office in 2018. At the June council, more than 40 countries called on China to grant it immediate access.
In the background, there is a broader, lingering point of tension in the Council, between those who believe that a human rights organization that includes brutal autocrats cannot speak in a credible voice and those who believe that the Council is only acting like that Mission accomplished is to try to get even the worst perpetrators into the tent.
Reilly followed up her grievances internally, but when the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement in 2017 in which she “categorically denied” her allegations (without denying that names were being leaked to China), she began to speak broadly about the institution itself. After an internal UN court case, the relationship between Reilly and the UN finally broke up and since 2019 she has been receiving a salary, but no longer a role. She met with current and former Irish ambassadors to the UN in Geneva, but feels “simply abandoned” by the Irish government to retaliate. When asked if it had a position on Reilly’s case, the Federal Foreign Office only said that it was aware of the issues she had raised and referred to the two meetings with its officials.
A spokesman for UN Secretary-General António Guterres said all staff were required to abide by the organization’s rules and that the UN had “fully followed all reasonable procedures to deal with complaints filed by Ms. Reilly”. Their complaints related to “a discontinued historical practice” where names were “occasionally endorsed in limited circumstances and with due diligence that no action was taken … would endanger any human rights defender.” The spokesman said the practice ended in 2015 Reilly says it continued, at least orally, and insists that “no action” has been taken to keep the activists safe and calls for an independent investigation into their allegations – a demand made by Transparency International, the Index on Censorship and a number of whistleblower groups.