China, the UN Human Rights Office and the Irish whistleblower

Sacking of Irishwoman Emma Reilly highlights long-standing dilemma

Almost three weeks ago, on November 9th, Emma Reilly received a letter that told her she was being dismissed from her job at the United Nations. For the 42-year-old Irishwoman, 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 shone a harsh light on the world's most important human rights body and in particular on how it handles relationships with powerful member-states that are themselves human-rights abusers.

The reason for Reilly's dismissal, according to the letter, was that, in defiance of a direct instruction, she "engaged in unauthorised communications with external parties in relation to issues concerning the official activities" of the UN. That refers to a number of interviews she gave to journalists as well as some social media posts and contacts with representatives of UN member-states. In all those conversations and posts the subject-matter was the same: Reilly's accusation that the Human Rights Council was giving China the names of Uighur dissidents.

Reilly, who is from Belfast, says she first observed the practice in March 2013, when she was working on the big set-piece event in the council's calendar: the triannual session where states come to Geneva to defend their progress in upholding rights at home. She says she received an email from a Chinese diplomat asking for "a favour" by confirming that named "Chinese anti-government separatists" were seeking accreditation to address an upcoming session. The 13 individuals, who included well-known Uighurs in exile, could pose a threat to China and to the UN, the email stated, according to Reilly. She says she was going to say no but was overruled. Reilly says she later learned this was common practice in the case of China. "The excuse I was given in 2013 was to not exacerbate Chinese mistrust against the UN Human Rights Office, but that doesn't explain the degree to which the entire UN senior management has got behind this policy over the years," Reilly says from Paris, where she now lives.

Whatever the reason, she believes the practice – which the UN does not deny occurred – put dissidents in danger. With that information, she says, Beijing could put pressure on their families, including through arrest or torture, to get them to cancel their appearances in Geneva.



Meanwhile, as Reilly's protests grew louder over recent years, so too did the criticism of China over its repression of the Muslim Uighur population in the northwestern province of Xinjiang. The Human Rights Council has been one of the principal forums for that criticism. China, which won election to the council last year, has been working to pressure states into supporting a shift away from civil and political rights and even to reject the very idea that human rights ought to be the subject of multilateral discussion. UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet has been negotiating access to Xinjiang since shortly after she took office in 2018. At the council in June, more than 40 countries urged China to give her immediate access.

In the background is a broader, perennial point of tension at the council, between those who believe a human rights body that counts brutal autocrats among its members cannot speak with a credible voice and those who think the only way for the council to achieve its mission is to try to bring even the worst offenders into the tent.

Reilly pursued her complaints internally, but when the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement in 2017 to "categorically reject" her claims (though without denying that names had been passed on to China), she began to speak out more widely beyond the institution itself. After an internal UN court process, the relationship between Reilly and the UN ruptured definitively and since 2019 she has been paid a salary but given no role. She met with the current and former Irish ambassadors to the UN in Geneva but feels the Irish Government "simply abandoned me" to be retaliated against. Asked whether it had a position on Reilly's case, the Department of Foreign Affairs said only that it was "aware of the issues" she had raised and pointed to the two meetings she had with its officials.

A spokesman for UN secretary general António Guterres said all staff members were obliged to comply with the organisation’s rules, and that the UN had “exhaustively followed all appropriate procedures to handle the complaints filed by Ms Reilly”. Her complaints related to “a discontinued historical practice” where names were “occasionally confirmed to states in limited circumstances and with care to ensure that no action . . . would endanger any human rights activists”. The spokesman said the practice ended in 2015. Reilly says it has continued, at least orally, and insists “no measures whatsoever” were taken to ensure the safety of activists. She is calling for an independent investigation into her allegations – a demand supported by Transparency International, the Index on Censorship and a number of whistleblower groups.