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‘I’m the Only One Speaking’: How a UN Whistleblower on China Lost Her Job

Emma Reilly, who had exposed the UN's dealings with China, was last week fired from her job.

Published
Opinion
5 min read
‘I’m the Only One Speaking’: How a UN Whistleblower on China Lost Her Job
i

Let’s start with the conclusion: Emma Reilly was last week fired from her job. Fired officially because she had been formally advised not to talk to the press and social networks and she did not oblige. A better excuse, then, according to Reilly, must be the usual pretext the United Nations uses to fire whistleblowers – charges of sexual misconduct for men, and of being mentally unstable for women.

Being fired, trashed and having your career over is the price to be paid, it seems, for denouncing the privileges UN Human Rights Council has granted to China and how its representatives, under pressure or for other reasons, have been playing at Beijing's tune.

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It Started With an Email in 2013

The story starts a long ago when Reilly had just started working for the UNHRC. She had been in office for just over a year when in March 2013, an astonishing message arrives in her inbox from a Chinese diplomat based in Geneva, asking for a “favour” to confirm the information about “anti-government Chinese separatists” individuals to be accredited to attend the Human Rights Council. Her direct superior, Eric Tistounet, head of the Human Rights Council Branch of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), agreed and was instructing the staff to share the names with China “not to exacerbate the Chinese mistrust against us”, despite the practice being explicitely forbidden by UN rules.

A certain number of dissidents were citizens of European countries, but their families were still in China. Following a routine practice that is typical of all undemocratic, dictorial regimes, China would threaten the dissidents of harming and harassing their families still based in the country. And so they did.

The Order to Resolve the Dispute 'Informally'

Troubled by this favour granted to Beijing, Emma Reilly retraced the e-mails in which she had been copied over the past year, and discovered that such a “favour” was nothing new. Thus, she came across an exchange dated September 2012, in which a Chinese diplomat evoked a “usual practice” of confirming the names of accredited persons. Emma, following the guidelines prescribed for UN staff, complained to her superiors, and also reported them, but nothing changed.

In February 2017, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a press release “categorically rejecting” her accusations of endangering activists.

Without denying that names have been disclosed in the past, the statement said that “additional precautionary measures” have been taken, including a “notification by the UN to the individuals concerned”. Deeming this press release to be misleading, Emma Reilly broke free from her obligation to secrecy and spoke to the media herself.

Over the years, her case eventually escalated to the highest level of the United Nations. The UN confirmed twice – in 2017 and then in 2019 – the thruth of Reilly’s accusations. In the beginning, Reilly was recognised as a ‘whistleblower’, a status for which the United Nations has special protections. In theory, in fact, UN staff are bound to denounce misconduct and corruption. In a letter dated 2018, the chief of staff of Secretary General Antonio Guterres, Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti, urged the then High Commissioner for human rights, the Jordanian Zeid Ra'ad Al-Hussein, to “resolve informally” this dispute, to seek “mediation” with the Irishwoman, and to “find her [Reilly] an appropriate post as quickly as possible”.

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When the Geneva Police Turned At Her Door

But that did not happen, and later, he astonishingly told Reilly that “he has no power” on local functionaries. Reilly was kept at the United Nations with a salary but practically without mansions, until the complete story came up on the French daily Le Monde days ago. Meanwhile, during all these years, Reilly was ostracised and harassed in many ways.

She was even prevented to speak during a meeting to discuss her case. Reilly was supposed to intervene by videoconference, but five minutes before the scheduled meeting, the Geneva police turned at her door, saying the United Nations had sent them because she might have been in danger.

The expedient – because an expedient it was – worked. By the time she had explained to them that nothing was going on and that she was in no danger, the meeting was over, and she could not intervene.

The story is frankly astonishing. While, in fact, there’s nothing odd in China trying to cover up the genocide of Uyghurs or to harrass dissidents and human rights activists, there’s a lot to say about the hidden policies of a body we all trust as being a place where people and states can defend their fundamental rights.

There’s something unsettling about allowing China, as they did in March 2020, to install an exhibition of pictures at the corridors of the Palace of Nations showing happy Uighurs. Next door and outside the Palace (since side events and independent voices from civil society have not been allowed into the Palace yet after COVID-19), people were protesting and displaying pieces of evidence for internment camps and a genocide being perpetred by China for many, many years.

Chinese 'Pressures'

Beijing intends to both silence critics and reshape international standards in its favour, particularly the definition of human rights. It no longer wants to relate to freedoms such as the freedom to express oneself, but wants to adopt concepts that are more favourable to it, such as economic development. And this takes care also of the human rights violations along the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) or, in general, along the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The genocide of Baloch or Uighurs, under this narrative, is a small price to be paid for development.

Many United Nations officials and many EU functionaries in Brussels, off the record, have been talking of Chinese ‘pressures’, which sometimes come close to blackmailing.

But it’s one thing being ‘pragmatic’ as they say, and allow ‘little concessions’ for the ‘greater good’.

It’s a different thing, as is happening in Reilly’s case, trying to cover up a practice sanctioned by the United Nations itself.

The most shocking thing, after all these years, is that I'm still the only one denouncing these methods. What despairs me is that a lot of people are relying on the UN, when, in fact, the UN itself was giving up their names and identities to China
Emma Rilley

The United Nations claims that this practice stopped, but it gave no evidence of it. In contrast, Reilly gave evidence of what came to her direct knowledge and is calling for an independent investigation – a much-needed investigation if they want to save UN Human Rights Council's reputation.

(Francesca Marino is a journalist and a South Asia expert who has written ‘Apocalypse Pakistan’ with B Natale. Her latest book isBalochistan — Bruised, Battered and Bloodied’. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for his reported views.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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