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29 Jun 2021

UN Body assists China to expand its global policing, refuses to release secret agreement

This past year, the Covid 19 Pandemic has revealed weaknesses in the UN’s ability to address global challenges, and highlighted the increasing authority China claims over multilateral institutions. But China’s reach does not stop at firmly setting the terms for the WHO’s investigation into the origin of Covid19, blocking the entry of independent human rights experts into Xinjiang, or using its veto power at the UN Security Council: it has also increasingly instrumentalized multilateral institutions to pursue its own anti-human rights agenda.

Download Safeguard Defenders evidence submission to the UN Human Rights Council here.

Over the last years, the CCP has been expanding its policing reach beyond its borders, across the globe, to target those sought under Xi Jinping’s ‘anti-corruption’ campaign, as well as to silence critics and exiled dissidents or secure their return to China to face ‘justice’. It is now using the United Nation’s body set up to combat corruption – UNODC - to further its own global policing, and its accompanying human rights abuses.

UNODC is playing right along, having signed a cooperation agreement with China’s National Supervision Commission – its massive extra-judicial policing force - and refusing to release the secret content of this agreement. This is a shocking lack of openness in light of the UN Convention Against Corruption listing transparency among its core values.

“Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people”.

The quote from the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights opens UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres’ 2020 Call to Action for Human Rights, putting rights firmly at the heart of the United Nations family.

Words that sound very hollow to the countless victims of China’s growing network of systems designed to disappear its critics, revamped since the advent of Xi Jinping’s reign. China’s emerging and growing ecosystem for disappearances is a modern update on the exact totalitarian approach of the past that Guterres denounced in his Call to Action speech.

Yet on 17 October 2019, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) signed an agreement with China’s National Supervision Commission (NSC), a body that stands credibly accused of committing not one, but two crimes against humanity per the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court[i]. Research by Safeguard Defenders and others has revealed that the NSC is responsible for widespread and systematic acts of enforced disappearance, torture, and other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health, gross human rights violations that have all been reported to the United Nations.


The NSC and its mass use of disappearances to fight “corruption”

Based on the one-year pilot project before the NSC’s launch, it has mandate to investigate a group of up to 300,000,000 people. The system - operating outside any judicial bounds –  was created to expand the scope of supervising and ‘controlling’ not only party members, state functionaries, management at schools, hospitals, universities, mass organizations and state-owned enterprises, but also journalists, business people and local contractors.

The system, which employs mass use of enforced disappearances and torture, and undermines any chance of a fair trial, was denounced by Safeguard Defenders on the International Day of the Disappeared in 2019 and a comprehensive review of the system was provided to the relevant UN organs at that time, along with a call to review the system and condemn any and all practices found to be in violation of key human rights protections.

Depending on which statistic from the Chinese government is used - a minimum average of 16 to 76 people are put into the NSC’s liuzhi detention system, every single day. Once placed into the system, the victim can be held for up to six months, without the right to consult a lawyer, without the right for judicial review, without contact or information to family members. There is no external appeal or redress possible. At all. Even when the NSC clearly violates the law and keeps the suspect beyond the time limit of six months.

The system closely resembles the Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location custodial mechanism, which the UN Human Rights Mandates have called a form of enforced disappearance.


Once inside, the victims are simply and literally disappeared.

Liuzhi is a legalized system for disappearances. It came into effect in 2018, under the NSC and operates with total impunity. It is not a judicial organ, and those taken away and disappeared are not part of any judicial process. The investigators are not classified as judicial personnel, and therefore they are excluded from already non-effective anti-torture provisions in Chinese law. The victims must be kept at secret facilities outside the judicial system. The NSC has also been explicitly classified as “a non-administrative organ”, which renders it immune from any lawsuits based on China’s administrative law. This grants it complete im(p)unity for any wrongdoing it may be responsible for. In fact, it is also tasked with investigating police, prosecutors and courts for malpractice, which in practical terms expands on its impunity even further, as no judicial organ would dare go against the NSC.

In the establishment of the NSC, the former Ministry of Supervision, the Procuratorate’s anti-corruption bureau and the National Audit Office were merged. All these bodies handled investigations of economic crimes by state functionaries. The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) – which has long been tasked with both ‘discipline inspection’ and investigating economic crimes by party members continues to exist alongside the NSC, in effect the same body but with two different names.

Before the establishment of the NSC, any investigation for a breach of law, including for economic crimes, had to be investigated and pursued through the legal system, unless the suspect was a member of the Chinese Communist Party. By creating the NSC, the judicial system no longer has the right to investigate such crimes but must hand cases over to the NSC for investigation, allowing exclusive competence for presumed violation of duties and economic crimes to this non-judicial organ operating outside any legal bounds.

In the words of Zhejiang province’s anti-graft chief Liu Jianchao: "These are not criminal or judicial arrests and they are more effective.” Jiang Mingan, a Peking University law professor elaborated further: corruption cases are "heavily dependent on the suspect’s confession. (...) If he (the suspect) remains silent under the advice of a lawyer, it would be very hard to crack the case".

In sum: an extra-judicial ’anti-corruption’ body on steroids, created to legalize mass human rights abuse and instill fear in the hearts and minds of the CCP’s subjects.


Enter the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime

On 17 October 2019, two months after Safeguard Defenders submitted a comprehensive review of the NSC’s liuzhi operations to eight UN Human Rights Special Procedures, a joint press release by the UNODC and PRC proudly announced the signing of a memorandum of understanding on cooperation in combating corruption by the United Nations and… the National Commission of Supervision of the People's Republic of China.

According to the statement,

“The new agreement will allow the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and China to strengthen cooperation on the implementation of the UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) in key areas such as prevention, criminal justice responses to corruption offences, law enforcement cooperation and stolen asset recovery.”

And further:

“Under the agreement, UNODC and China will enhance information sharing with respect to research and best practices on the prevention of corruption, trends in international judiciary and law enforcement cooperation related to corruption offences, and stolen asset recovery. Joint training, capacity building programmes and support through projects such as the UNODC and World Bank Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative (StAR) are envisioned. UNODC and China will also reinforce dialogue and communication on the implementation of UNCAC and work on establishing a communication platform to facilitate exchanges among anti-corruption authorities of UNCAC States parties.”

The irony of the self-proclaimed guardian of the UN Convention against Corruption’s enhanced cooperation with a body operating outside any of the minimum legal bounds provided for in countless UN Treaties and Conventions cannot be lost on anyone. Unfortunately, the joke is on the terrorized victims, both inside and outside China, given the express reference to "step[ping] up practical cooperation in the area of fugitive repatriation", as stated by Yang Xiaodu, Chairman of the NSC, and China’s recent exponential increase in attempts to ‘repatriate’ dissidents – by legal means under the long series of recently signed extradition treaties, via deportations using immigration law, or through involuntary returns via threats to family remaining in China, or even sending out agents to countries to intimidate and harass people into returning to China to face ‘justice’.

The tone-deaf action by the UNODC, discounting the review requested by other UN procedures about the NSC and its systematic human rights abuses, is striking. The MOU was announced just a month after the UN Human Rights Council’s Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) issued a letter of allegation to China[ii], specifically about the NSC and its liuzhi system, and its ability to arbitrarily detain, disappear, and torture. The communication even includes a report on the murder of a person detained in liuzhi through torture. The working group later brought up this issue again in its annual report to the Human Rights Council[iii]. China did not respond to the WGEID’s inquiry.

At the same time, the NSC has proclaimed proudly that it has signed similar MOUs and agreements with a growing list of individual countries, including Belarus, Laos, Vietnam, Argentina, Australia, Denmark, Thailand, the Philippines, and Kazakhstan, and how important they have been to successfully seek and have "fugitives" returned through a variety of means, although rarely through formal extraditions. At least for the NSC, signing of these MOU has effectively legitimized China's move of handing over judicial cooperation, and criminal investigations, to a non-judicial organ, when it says

"The signing of a MOU on cooperation...has effectively demonstrated China's good image of comprehensively governing the country according to law, and has enhanced the international community’s recognition and trust in China’s rule of law."

On 2 November 2020, Safeguard Defenders wrote to UNODC’s Executive Director Ghada Fathy Ismail Waly, urging the UN body to urgently reconsider the agreement in order not to participate in or to facilitate the disappearance of ‘suspects’ by the NSC. SD noted in its letter that

“It took a mere five weeks after the system’s inauguration before the first (known) death by torture inside the system, of a person placed into liuzhi not for being a suspect, but merely for being a potential witness. The victim’s family has not been given any redress, or even the possibility of such redress. Offering support to track and repatriate those deemed “criminals” by the Chinese government – and hand them over for investigation by a non-judicial organ, the NSC, while in secret detention outside the judicial system – will inevitably lead to enforced disappearances and to maltreatment or torture.”

UNODC’s response did not delay much. On 23 November, Mr John Brandolino, Director of the Division for Treaty Affairs, replied downplaying the scope of the memorandum of understanding stating the agreement

“does not foresee anti-corruption cooperation at an operational level” and adding: “The United Nations has attached great importance to human rights.  In February 2020, Mr. António Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations, launched a Call to Action to put human dignity and the promise of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the core of UN’s work.  As part of the UN secretariat, UNODC will continue fulfilling its commitment to respect, protect and promote human rights through its support and cooperation with Member States to strengthen their response to threats of crime (including corruption), drugs and terrorism.  We stand ready for such cooperation, including with other stakeholders, with a view to contributing to the achievement of the sustainable development goals which, inter alia, underpin the significance of human rights.”

Since then the UNODC has refused our request to release the content of the memorandum of understanding in order to allow for independent evaluation of its precise scope. The body responsible for anti-corruption work, for which transparency is a core value, is refusing to publicize or share the text of a formal agreement signed in the name of anti-corruption.

The initial answer given, downplaying the agreement, stands in sharp contrast with the glowing initial press release about it. It makes it appear as if the content of the agreement may not be as limiting as the UNODC’s initial answer indicates. 

That the UN anti-corruption body violates its own guiding principles on integrity, accountability, respect and beneficence, as well as key anti-corruption principles of ensuring access to, meaningful engagement with, and transparency, further casts significant suspicions on its actions and the agreement.

However, as much as the initial response to Safeguard Defenders sought to downplay the significance of the agreement – it also contained information even more disconcerting than the MOU that caught our initial attention:

“As you are aware, the National Commission of Supervision (NCS) is the supreme supervisory body of the People’s Republic of China and is recognized as a legitimate representative of the Government. It is also the main focal point for China’s work related to the Convention.”  

“The MoU concluded between UNODC and the NCS aims to further our goals and objectives of promoting the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development through the fight against corruption in line with the Convention.”

The very same 2030 Agenda that sets out to promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels. Literally the exact opposite of the NSC and its operations: formally recognized, legitimized, aided and abetted in its gross human rights abuse by the “UN family”.

Final words by UNODC to Safeguard Defenders on our reiterated appeal in April 2021? “UNODC welcomes stakeholder views on the various aspects of our work, and has taken note of your position.”


New data on the mass use of Liuzhi

Since the UNODC signed its MOU with the NSC, it is estimated, based on data from the NSC, that some 28,983 people have been placed into liuzhi, all of which would count as arbitrary detentions (as the NSC is not a judicial organ), and somewhere between the vast majority to all of them tantamount to ‘enforced or involuntary disappearances’, and subject to both torture (article 1, Convention Against Torture (CAT)) and maltreatment (article 16, CAT).

Even though the government intentionally does not release nationwide data on liuzhi use, and many times only fragmented data from select provinces, there is nonetheless data available. Since 2018, the following data, per province, has been released (column Liuzhi in province):

Sources: See tables and list of sources in the appended UN submission, or download directly by clicking here.

Even though there are only a few data points, especially for 2019 and 2020, based on extrapolation, one can calculate nationwide figures based on each provinces’ level of (admitted) use of liuzhi (column Estimation nationwide based on Liuzhi in province and province’s % of total population). The calculations allow to infer some averages nationwide, as shown above.

In fact, even without any extrapolations, or attempts to gain nationwide data, the above data from the NSC itself still admits to 5,909 cases of liuzhi in the select provinces during the period. As this comes from the NSC itself, those 5,909 cases are irrefutable. As the NSC is not a judicial body, and their investigations are not, by definition, judicial procedures, they are all by definition arbitrary detentions. The UN has, in addition, clearly laid firm that the use of solitary confinement, which is a prerequisite in law for liuzhi, amounts to both torture (article 1, CAT) and maltreatment (article 16, CAT) if it is a) prolonged (over two weeks) and b) performed during the investigative period and for investigative purposes. A detailed analysis released by SD of this is available.

Denial of knowledge to the family of the whereabouts of the victims, the lack of any right to access legal counsel, and that they are kept in non-judicial system facilities, and denied communication, also means, as ten Special Procedures of the UN has already established, ‘enforced or involuntary disappearances’.



Is this the kind of broadened base of support for human rights by reaching out to critics and engaging in conversations that reach deeply into society Secretary General Guterres had in mind when issuing his Call to Action for Human Rights?

What is UNODC hiding? Why is a body committed to transparency and fighting corruption keeping – in their own words – an innocent memorandum of understanding secret? How does is defend its legitimization, recognition and official cooperation with an organ that is the embodiment of abuse and impunity?

Download a list of questions put forth by Safeguard Defenders to UNODC before publication, which have all gone unanswered, here: 

Questions that necessitate urgent answers, not only to protect and defend universal human rights as the core of the UN’s mission, but to safeguard the very mission and credibility of UNODC as well. As UN Secretary General Guterres tweeted on June 3rd: “When powerful people get away with corruption, people lose trust in their governing institutions. [Democracies] are weakened by cynicism and hopelessness. Ending impunity is an essential step towards a new social contract based on trust, integrity and justice.”

Words that could not ring any truer with regard to the mass operations of China’s extra-judicial super-body. Will the UN put its foot where its mouth is or will it allow trust in the global governing body to be eroded ever further by the inbound multilateralism with Chinese characteristics?

If 28,983 people arbitrary detained, disappeared and torture since signing the MOU is not enough for the UNODC to realize NSC is not a suitable partner, let alone develop deeper cooperation with, how many are?


[i] The Rome Statute classifies Crimes against humanity as any of the following acts, carried out against a civilian population, with knowledge of such attack, and when use is widespread or systematic:

Article 7 (i): Enforced disappearances

Article 7 (f): Torture

Article 7 (k): Other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health.

[iii] A/HRC/45/13