Why We Are Calling on the United Nations to Act Over the Tiananmen Massacre

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By Wang Dan and Frances Eve

In 1989, the Chinese Communist Party ordered the People’s Liberation Army to massacre the people for peacefully protesting for democracy. In the 30 years since, the government has refused to allow any independent investigation nor hold anyone accountable for the slaughter. The government imprisons those who try to commemorate the victims or speak out.

This is why we, a group of victims and survivors of the massacre who led or joined the 1989 pro-democracy movement, with the assistance of the NGO Chinese Human Rights Defenders, have filed a complaint with the UN Human Rights Council (HRC). We accuse the Government of China of committing crimes against humanity during the June 3-4, 1989 massacre and engaging in a consistent pattern of gross human rights violations by continuing to suppress those who try to remember. We call on the HRC to take on the case and investigate.

The Chinese government has repeatedly ignored demands for justice, labelled peaceful protestors as “criminals,” and refused to provide appropriate compensation or to allow families to mourn. Chinese citizens face prison and torture for paying tribute to the victims and commemorating the anniversary publicly or privately. Victims’ families, including elderly parents, are put under surveillance or house arrest. Information related to the protests and the military assault have been censored. 28 years after the massacre, the government detained to death Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo who had persistently spoken the truth about Tiananmen and peacefully struggled for democracy in China.

The Council’s Complaint Procedure, established under HRC resolution 5/1, allows victims to submit a case against a State even if the State is not party to human rights treaties, such as China which has not ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It also allows us to take our case directly to the highest level of the UN human rights machinery. For decades the Chinese government dodged substantive cooperation with other UN human rights bodies. It is overdue for the HRC to take up the case of Tiananmen in its entirety.

The Chinese government has been systematically covering up the truth and oppressing civil society efforts to seek accountability and redress. We are turning to the Human Rights Council because of its founding principles that when States fail in their “duty to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms,” the international community must step in to address the situation.  

The Council must live up to its principles and take on a powerful abuser like China. As the world’s main human rights body, through which the international community can act together to protect human rights, the Council must demonstrate its strength, fairness, and principled opposition to double standards and biases. The Council’s demonstration of equal concern and protection for victims of rights abuses in all countries, including China, could earn the Council credibility and strengthen protection for fundamental freedoms around the world.

Since its establishment in 2006, the Council has not built a consistent record in holding accountable human rights abusing members of the Council, such as China or Saudi Arabia, despite a requirement that members “uphold the highest standards” of human rights. There has never been a resolution on China in the history of the HRC. Taking on China would be one way for the Council to respond to such criticism.  

The ability of the HRC to do its job is also a test of the body’s credibility. China’s influence within the UN is growing. In addition to being a permanent member of the Security Council, a member of the Human Rights Council, China is now the second largest contributor to the UN regular budget and peacekeeping budget. Though the UN is in a dire financial crisis, its institutions and leaders should not allow themselves to be bought into silence by the Chinese government. Students were not afraid in 1989 to stand up to the government of China, and neither should diplomats.

Since 2017, the Chinese government has been aggressively undermining UN human rights bodies. Such institutions, an essential pillar of the international rules-based system, are experiencing tremendous pressure from within the UN system, threatening to weaken them at time when they face severe challenges to protect human rights around the world. Without the human rights pillar, it is impossible to maintain the other two pillars of the UN: peace and sustainable development in the world.

China’s recent aggressive behaviour across UN human rights forums, in step with its growing economic and political influence, is the government’s way to shelter itself from international scrutiny of its human rights abuses at home. In the past five years of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s reign, the government has unleashed a ferocious crackdown on civil society, locked up millions of Uyghurs and Turkic Muslims in internment camps in Xinjiang, deployed mass surveillance devices all over the country, and abolished presidential term limits, paving the way for Xi to become dictator for life.  Last summer, authorities suppressed workers’ strike in Shenzhen and have since detained students at China’s most prestigious universities for supporting the workers, drawing little international condemnation.

In 1989, student protesters in Tiananmen hoped for a better future with democracy, rule of law, and respect for human rights. The Chinese people have been denied that future for too long. In demanding accountability for the crushing of the student protests 30 years ago and justice for those denied their right to refuse state-imposed amnesia, we are also asking the international community to confront the human rights abuses today under the Xi Jinping government.

Wang Dan, a former student leader during the Tiananmen pro-democracy protests, is the founder and director of the think tank Dialogue China

Frances Eve is the deputy director of research at Chinese Human Rights Defenders

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