14 May 2024

Extrajudicial Returns to China: Australia tip of the iceberg

Safeguard Defenders warmly welcomes calls by Australian Senators to review the Australian Federal Police’s (AFP) cooperation agreements with Chinese entities. This follows reporting by ABC’s Four Corners on the extrajudicial return of a Chinese woman from Australia in 2019. According to the reporting, the return was facilitated by the AFP, who granted the Chinese Public Security agents access to Australian territory to meet with the woman: Four Corners has established the MPS officers were approved to come here under an agreement with the Australian Federal Police (AFP) but once they were here, they breached protocol and returned to China with the woman.

 The 2019 Australian case is but one out of the 283 individual cases of extrajudicial returns from 56 countries and 2 regions claimed by the Chinese authorities we documented in our most recent report Chasing Fox Hunt.

Nor is it the only case where (some form of) law enforcement cooperation played a crucial role in enabling the forced returns of individuals outside the bounds of international legal standards or in blatant violation of territorial sovereignty.

Rather, as Chasing Fox Hunt lays out: it is a well-established and official policy of the Chinese authorities.

PRC official statements, press conferences and propaganda pieces contained in the report testify how the vast majority of over 12,000 coerced returns from over 120 countries and regions between 2014 and 2023 under flagship operations Fox Hunt and Sky Net took place extrajudicially.

The methods: persuading the target to return by applying pressure and collective punishment on family members back home or squeezing the living space out of them wherever they are abroad, repatriation in cooperation with law enforcement or immigration authorities in the host country, luring to and entrapment in countries from where it may be easier to return individuals extrajudicially, and last but not least, kidnapping.

It is a bit ironic, to say the least, that the AFP spokesman stated in response to ABC’s reporting that "The AFP will never endorse or facilitate a foreign agency to come to Australia to intimidate or force foreign nationals to return home – under Australian law, that is a crime."

Up until the end of last year, that same AFP maintained a Memorandum of Understanding with the very body that delivered the official written legal interpretation detailing the above methods: the CCP’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.

It wasn’t until Australian Senators repeatedly requested insight into the content and scope of the law enforcement cooperation with a Chinese Communist Party body in charge of overseeing all international return operations that the AFP announced it would “never renew” the agreement that was due to lapse at the start of this year.

But as the cases in Chasing Fox Hunt show, this is not an Australian problem only. It is a truly global issue.

As it ramped up its covert transnational repression efforts since Xi Jinping came to power, Beijing also pushed for a growing amount of judicial and law enforcement cooperation agreements around the world.

These agreements essentially fulfil two main objectives. One: legitimizing its authoritarian reach and sending a clear message to those at risk of its long-arm policing efforts that it can get to them, anywhere, any time. Two: create trusted networks with law enforcement entities around the world that it can use and abuse at will.

The latter objective further reinforces the global web of fear the CCP seeks to spin and creates grave distrust towards local law enforcement entities in communities targeted by its transnational repression.

Anyone can understand how a targeted individual may feel reticent of reporting to a local police force it knows actively cooperates with the very same authoritarian actor that is seeking to undermine their rights and freedoms.

This is why Safeguard Defenders has consistently called for greater transparency and a careful review of all judicial and law enforcement cooperation agreements with the PRC. And not just at the national level…

For the first time, Chasing Fox Hunt revealed the contents of a Memorandum of Understanding between the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and the very same Chinese Communist Party body openly responsible for the PRC’s extrajudicial returns methods and operations.

An agreement in direct violation of the UN’s mandatory Human Rights Due Diligence Policy on United Nations support to non-United Nations Security Forces that directly allows that entity to grow and cultivate its channels of law enforcement cooperation as "UNODC acts as a trusted intermediary to build trust and create contacts among practitioners around the world".  

The G7 leaders’ communiqué from Hiroshima called upon the PRC to act in accordance with its obligations under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and the Vienna Convention on Consular relations, and not to conduct interference activities aimed at undermining the security and safety of our communities, the integrity of our democratic institutions […]”. A call since reiterated in subsequent G7 communiqués, including at the outcome the Foreign Ministers meeting in Capri under the Italian G7 Presidency.

This is a call that can be heeded by the PRC only if those same countries, together with all their democratic partner and allies, start by ensuring that their domestic institutions and international cooperation bodies such as UNODC are in no way contributing to such activities.

Awareness is growing, let’s move towards coordinated action.