NS Christmas campaign: Show your support for Gao Zhisheng

The distinguished lawyer is at risk of torture.

For the past six years one of China’s most distinguished human rights advocate Gao Zhisheng has been a victim of China’s state system. Once regarded as "one of China's top ten lawyers", Gao is now disbarred, behind bars and at real risk of torture.  

His crime? He dared to criticise the government’s practices.

Gao had previously called on the Chinese government to stop religious persecution, including persecution of Falun Gong practitioners. He is currently imprisoned for allegedly violating the terms of a three-year suspended sentence given for false and trumped-up charges.

In February 2009, police arrested Gao. He was not charged with an offence. Nor did he appear before a judge following his arrest. Instead he disappeared from sight.

Fourteen months later in March 2010 Gao re-appeared in Beijing for two weeks.  

In a televised interview Gao gave during his brief reappearance, he told how he had been held in hostels, farm houses, apartments and prisons in various parts of China. He had been hooded, tied with belts and made to sit still for hours on end.  Adding psychological trauma to the mix, he was also told that his children had suffered nervous breakdowns.

That wasn’t the first time Gao had been tortured.
 
Since 2006, Gao Zhisheng has been repeatedly imprisoned, tortured and held under illegal house arrest. Members of his family have been routinely beaten, starved and intimidated. In October 2006 he was charged and found guilty of "inciting subversion".

In 2007, after criticising the human rights situation in China in an open letter to the US Congress, plain-clothed police came into his home, stripped him of his clothes and beat him unconscious. He was then taken and held incommunicado for nearly six weeks. Later Gao described how during that illegal detention, he was subjected to violent beatings, repeated electric shocks to his genitals, and lit cigarettes which were held close to his eyes over a prolonged period of time, leaving him partially blind for days afterwards.

In 2010 Gao Zhisheng disappeared for the second time. It wasn’t until a year and a half later, in December 2011, that state media reported that he had violated terms of his suspended sentence and was being sent to serve his sentence in prison. Throughout these months his family did not know where he was or even if he was still alive.

Gao Zhisheng is currently held in a remote prison in Xinjiang in the far west of China. This region has historically been used to hide away political prisoners.

Previous evidence has shown that Gao Zhisheng is at serious risk of being tortured while he’s in prison. Indeed, human rights lawyers in China regularly attract the wrath of China’s government because of their work defending victims of injustice. The clearest message possible must be sent to China’s authorities that Gao must not be harmed and instead released from prison immediately.

Watch Anish Kapoor and others peforming a version of "Gangnam Style" in support of Gao and those like him:

Gao Zhisheng features as part of Amnesty International’s Write for Rights Campaign, which the New Statesman online is supporting as its Christmas campaign. You can play a part in this. Visit www.amnesty.org.uk/gao.
 

Gao Zhisheng with his son.

Eulette Ewart is a press officer for Amnesty International UK.  Follow Amnesty's media team on Twitter @newsfromamnesty.

Photo: Getty
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Sheepwrecked: how the Lake District shows up World Heritage's flaws

Here's hoping future statements about farming and the environment aren't quite so sheepish.

“Extremists like George Monbiot would destroy the Lake District,” tweeted Eric Robson, presenter of Radio 4’s Gardener’s Questions. But he’s “just standing up for nature”, others shot back in Monbiot’s defence. The cause of the clash? The park’s new World Heritage status and the continuing debate over the UK’s “sheep-wrecked” countryside.

Tension is such you can almost hear Cumbria’s Vikings chuckling in their hogback graves – for sheep farming still defines the Lakes as much as any poem. Hilltop farmers, like Lizzie Weir and Derek Scrimegeour, have sweated the landscape into shape over generations. And while Wordsworth may have wandered lonely as a cloud, a few hundred pairs of pricked ears were likely ruminating nearby.

UNESCO’s World Heritage committee now officially supports this pro-farm vision: “The most defining feature of the region, which has deeply shaped the cultural landscape, is a long-standing and continuing agro-pastoral tradition,” says the document which recommends the site for approval. 

And there’s much to like about the award: the region’s small, outdoor farms are often embedded in their local community and focused on improving the health and quality of their stock – a welcome reminder of what British farms can do at their best. Plus, with Brexit on the horizon and UK megafarms on the rise, farmers like these need all the spotlight they can get.

But buried in the details of the bid document is a table showing that three-quarters of the area's protected sites are in an “unfavourable condition”. So it is depressing that farming’s impact on biodiversity appears to have been almost entirely overlooked. Whether you agree with the extent of George Monbiot’s vision for Rewilding or not, there are clearly questions about nibbled forests and eroded gullies that need to be addressed – which are not mentioned in the report from UNESCO’s  lead advisory body, ICOMOS, nor the supplementary notes on nature conservation from IUCN.

How could so little scrutiny have been applied? The answer may point to wider problems with the way the World Heritage program presently works – not just in Cumbria but around the world.

In the Lake District’s case, the bid process is set-up to fail nature. When the convention was started back in the 1970s, sites could be nominated under two categories, either “cultural” or “natural”, with the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) advising on the first, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) on the second.

Then in 1992 a new category of “cultural landscape” was introduced to recognise places where the “combined works of nature and man” are exceptional. This means such sites are always evaluated principally by ICOMOS, giving them more resources to research and shape the verdict – and limiting the input IUCN is able to make.

Another weakness is that the evaluation bodies can only follow a state’s choice of category. So if a state nominates a site as a Cultural Landscape, then considerations about issues like biodiversity can easily end up taking a back seat.

According to Tim Badman, director of IUCN’s World Heritage Programme, this situation is in need of redress. “The way in which this separation of nature and culture works is increasingly out of tune and counter-productive,” he says. “Every natural site has some kind of relationship with people, and every cultural site has some major conservation interest, even if it might not be globally significant. We should collaborate much more to make that a virtue of the system.”

The more you think about it, the madder the notion of a “Cultural Landscape” sounds. Landscapes are, after all, inherently scoped out by man, and there is little in the natural world that humanity has left untouched. Especially those in Western Europe and especially those, like Cumbria, that have been felled and farmed by a succession of historic invaders.

Relationships between advisory bodies are also not the only failing in UNESCO’s approach; relationships between nations and the convention can be problematic too. At this month’s meeting of the committee in Poland, it was decided that the Great Barrier Reef would, once again – and despite shocking evidence of its decline – not be on UNESCO’s “In Danger” list. It prompts the question, what on earth is the list for?

The reluctance of many nations to have their sites listed as In Danger is a mixed blessing, says Badman. In some cases, the prospect of being listed can motivate reform. But it is also a flawed tool – failing to include costed action plans – and causing some governments to fear attacks from their domestic opposition parties, or a decline in their tourism.

On top of this, there is the more generalised politicking and lobbying that goes on. Professor Lynn Meskell, an Anthropologist at Stanford University, is concerned that, over the years, the institution “has become more and more political”. At the most recent session of the World Heritage Committee earlier this month, she found nominations being used to inflame old conflicts, a continuing regional dominance by Europe, and a failure to open up many “at risk” sites for further discussion. “All Yemen’s sites are in danger, for instance” she says, “yet they couldn’t afford to even send one person."

Perhaps most challenging of all is the body’s response to climate change. At the recent committee gathering, Australia raised the subject by way of suggesting it cannot be held solely be responsible for the decline of the Great Barrier Reef. And Turkey attempted to water down a reference to the Paris Climate Agreement, claiming the language used was overly “technical” and that the delegates present were too inexpert to comment.

According to Tim Badman, climate change is certainly an area that needs further work, not least because World Heritage’s present policy on the subject is now a decade old. Even the most ambitious interpretation of the Paris Climate Agreement would still see very significant damage done to Heritage sites around the world, Badman says.

There is hope of change, however. For the most polite yet sturdy response to Turkey’s objections – or, as the chair ironically puts it “this very small ecological crisis” – I recommend watching these encouraging reactions from Portugal, Phillippines and Finland (2h30) -  a push-back on technical objections that Meskell says is rare to see. IUCN will also be producing the second edition of their World Heritage Outlook this November.

Positions on the Lake District’s farms will also hopefully be given further thought. Flaws within World Heritage’s approach may have helped pull wool over the committee’s eyes, but future debate should avoid being quite so sheepish.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.