By Josh Feldman and Eryk Bagshaw
March 21, 2022
Judge Rowan Downing had his appointment terminated by the UN.
Singapore: Australian judge Rowan Downing, QC, has accused the United Nations of an “attack upon the independence of the judiciary” and a coup d’etat after he was removed from the case of a whistleblower who had accused the global body of passing on information to Beijing about Chinese dissidents.
Downing, past President of the UN Dispute Tribunal and a former international war crimes judge, oversaw the case of Emma Reilly, a UN human rights officer-turned whistleblower, after she accused her employer of handing Beijing the names of Uighur and other Chinese dissidents set to speak at the UN Human Rights Council.
Downing had his appointment terminated by the UN in July 2019 before he could release his final judgments on Reilly’s case.
He said that his two judgments relating to Reilly’s case in the internal UN Dispute Tribunal were “within 10 days of being released” when he was dismissed in 2019 and this “was probably known to management”. The 69-year-old’s comments during the hearings were critical of Reilly’s treatment by the UN.
“It’s the sort of conduct that happens possibly following a coup – a coup d’etat – where people want to get rid of judges quickly,” Downing said of his dismissal. “It was, in fact, an attack upon the independence of the judiciary because… no nation-state would be able to acceptably do that.”
China has put the UN at the centre of its global diplomacy plans. Beijing is now the UN’s second-largest financier, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was the guest of honour alongside Vladimir Putin at the Beijing Winter Olympics and China won the support of dozens of countries in the General Assembly for its policies in Hong Kong and Xinjiang in 2020.
US President Joe Biden addresses the UN General Assembly.
Downing’s comments were first made in an interview in March last year but can only now be made public by The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. China has spent the past decade steadily building its influence within the United Nations and now controls three of its top agency posts, while the United States leads four.
The UN has been criticised by human rights groups for not being able to get independent inspectors into Xinjiang and for failing to pass Security Council resolutions addressing allegations of human rights abuse in China.
In his first judgment, Downing ruled partially in Reilly’s favour, ordering an investigation into her “complaint of abuse of authority”, while also criticising Guterres’ handling of her case. Guterres, Downing said, failed to properly address Reilly’s complaint and unlawfully deferred the UN’s consideration of the matter.
Downing said to his knowledge and that of “anybody else in the organisation” with whom he discussed the issue, Reilly’s case is “the only [whistleblower] case … where the Secretary-General had personally intervened”.
Downing said Guterres, through his chief of staff, initially intervened in the case to address Reilly’s concerns.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at the General Assembly hall.
During the hearing, Downing criticised Guterres for putting a “spin on what has occurred, such that the applicant [Reilly] is being portrayed as an unreasonable person, and that concerns me”.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric rejected claims that Guterres had personally intervened in Reilly’s case. Asked to respond to Downing’s claim that Guterres had unlawfully deferred the UN’s consideration of the matter, Dujarric said “we reject Judge Downing’s claim outright.”
Reilly discovered the UN’s practice of handing over the identities of Chinese dissidents in 2013 after China’s Geneva delegation requested a list of names set to speak at the UN Human Rights Council, including Dolkun Isa, the head of the World Uighur Congress. The congress is the peak global advocacy group for the Muslim minority in the northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang.
UN whistleblower Emma Reilly.
The Chinese government has threatened dissidents’ families for speaking out about conditions in the region where up to 1 million Uighurs have reportedly been put through re-education camps in what the US has labelled a genocide. Beijing says the claims are part of a groundless “Western smear campaign”.
Speaking to Britain’s LBC Radio in 2020, Reilly claimed that once Beijing receives the names of dissidents set to speak at upcoming Human Rights Council sessions, it “uses that information to… harass these peoples’ families that are still based in China”.
In an internal email in February 2013, Reilly suggested her colleagues reject Beijing’s request, “as we did for the Turkish mission before the last session”. That suggestion was ignored and Reilly began speaking out internally. She said she was subsequently “ostracised, publicly defamed” and “deprived of functions”.
The 43-year-old then reported the practice to Uighur organisations, international NGOs and the European Union delegation later that year. In 2017, she spoke to the media for the first time. Reilly remained employed by the UN while undertaking legal action over her treatment before being formally dismissed in 2021 for “having engaged in unauthorised communications with external parties in relation to issues concerning the official activities of the organisation”.
Dujarric said the UN did not continue to share activists’ names with the Chinese government. “It is unacceptable for human rights defenders to face reprisals for co-operating with or sharing information with the UN,” he said.
Wang Huiyao, the founder of the Centre for China and Globalisation, a think tank that often advises the Chinese government, said allegations of genocide in Xinjiang were “totally untrue” and that Chinese security services monitored some Uighurs to stop terrorist attacks.
“Every country has a few dissidents,” Dr Wang said in a phone interview from Beijing. “In Xinjiang, everything’s very normal, very healthy, and its economy is probably having its best time at the moment.”
In the two years between Reilly’s first judgment and her dismissal, China secured one of five seats on the panel that picks UN human rights abuse rapporteurs. It now controls the top positions in three of the UN’s agencies across agriculture, telecommunications, and aviation.
Since February, Beijing has been using its votes on the UN security council and UN courts to block or abstain from votes critical of Russia’s war in Ukraine.
The Asia-Pacific region must not return to the tensions of the Cold War era, China's leader Xi Jinping said ahead of a virtual meeting with US President Joe Biden expected as soon as next week.
Former US assistant secretary of state Jeffrey Feltman said China had shifted its focus from the UN’s development activities.
“China now flexes its muscles in the heart of the UN, its peace and security work,” he said in research for the Brookings Institute.
China has repeatedly referred to the 53 partners, including Pakistan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, that voted to support its actions in Hong Kong and 65 who backed its human rights record in Xinjiang in 2020 as evidence that it had the support of members in the General Assembly.
Dozens of other countries, including Australia, the United Kingdom and the US condemned its crackdowns in the two regions.
Wang said Beijing was not trying to influence the UN but “co-operate with it”.
“I think that the fundamental difference between China and the West is values. So-called Western democracies have their own system and China has its own democracy system,” he said.
“China is so big, the largest communist country and the world’s second-largest economy. Western countries are not doing that well, but China is doing well, hitting its KPIs and every year is adding almost an economy the size of Australia to its GDP.
“I can see if this is not properly explained people feel threatened.”