This week, the New York Times reported about China’s crackdown on human rights activists, particularly its harassment of, and reprisals against, activists who attend UN meetings.

As UN Watch pointed out at the March 2017 Human Rights Council session and again in May, in a letter complaint to Human Rights Chief Zeid Hussein, the OHCHR’s practice of handing over names of dissidents attending Council sessions in advance of the sessions enables China’s abuses and places these dissidents and their families at risk.

But OHCHR cannot seem to get its story straight on the status of its practice of disclosing names of human rights defenders to requesting state parties in advance of sessions.

February 2017 press release – In a February 2017 press release, OHCHR defended the practice and admitted that it “confirms” the identities of activists attending Council sessions to governments, particularly China, who “regularly ask the UN Human Rights Office” whether “particular NGO delegates are attending the forthcoming session.”

The press release issued in response to news that an OHCHR whistleblower had reported a senior official for placing dissidents at risk by handing their names to the Chinese government in advance of Human Rights Council sessions without their knowledge or consent.

May 2017 letter to UN Watch – In its May 30, 2017 letter response to UN Watch, OHCHR stated unequivocally: “As to your questions about our current policy and practices, we wish to be completely clear on the core issue: the UN Human Rights Office does not confirm the names of individual activists accredited to attend UN Human Rights Council sessions to any State, and has not done so since at least 2015.”

August 2017 letter to Human Rights Watch – Now, OHCHR has again confirmed to Human Rights Watch that it does not provide the names of human rights activists to requesting governments in advance of sessions, but contrary to what it told UN Watch in May, OHCHR implied that it has never handed over names in advance of sessions.

“Prior to regular sessions of the Human Rights Council, the Secretariat often receives communications from States, including the People’s Republic of China, listing some individuals who according to their information plan to attend or may be attending sessions of the Human Rights Council and who may represent possible threats to the United Nations. The Secretariat transmits these requests to the Safety and Security Service of the United Nations Office at Geneva, who are responsible for the security of all participants of the Human Rights Council sessions at the Palais des Nations, for their assessment. Once UNOG has assessed that there is no evidence to back up the allegations, the Secretariat of the Human Rights Council informs the concerned State of this conclusion. No other information is transmitted to the State. The individuals referred to in the communications from the State are free to seek accreditation and/or attend the sessions of the Council should they wish to do so.”

So, in February 2017 names were still being handed over, by May 2017 this had stopped in 2015, and by August 2017 all trace of it had disappeared. OHCHR, which is it?

Not surprisingly, OHCHR ignored UN Watch’s urging to publicly post its policy on its website and issue a new press release setting the record straight. Human rights defenders have a right to know what risks they are taking when they engage with the UN human rights mechanisms. The next session of the Human Rights Council begins on Monday. OHCHR should clarify the policy immediately.

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