Yu Wensheng, the universalist – by François Zimeray

July 8, 2021

On this 6-year anniversary of the “709 crackdown“, former French Ambassador and lawyer François Zimeray shares a vibrant tribute in support of 2021 Martin Ennals Award Laureate and human rights lawyer Yu Wensheng, arbitrarily detained in China since 2018. He reminds us that an attack on human rights anywhere is an attack on human rights everywhere. And that today, it is more important than ever to stand firm against human rights violations.

The “indignity” of the West, a decisive argument against any moral intervention

By François Zimeray, Former French Ambassador, lawyer, 9 July 2021 – Of all the diplomats with whom, in my role as Ambassador, I have had to discuss the question of human rights, the Chinese representatives are, by far, the most sensitive to the question, even though the picture of the country is disharmonic. Grave violations coexist with too timid progress that these violations make derisory, as well as with the desire to assert itself as a recognized and respected world power. The Chinese hyper-susceptibility is well known. The importance of keeping face makes any public denunciation delicate, even inoperative or downright counterproductive. It has often happened to me, when engaging in dialogue with Chinese diplomats, that I had to start by affirming that France is not “the” country of human rights, that our repeated condemnations by international courts (notably the ECHR) are justified and help us to progress. I really do believe this to be true. In short, I had to avoid at all costs the telescoping of civilizations and rely on the universal basis of international conventions. However, we must recognize that our discourse does not resonate, that the Uighur repression will mark the beginning of this century even more than the Tiananmen massacre in 1989, that the arbitrary incarceration of opponents for the crime of opinion is unacceptable. It is even more so when this confinement(detention?) borders on physical and moral torture or a form of creeping death penalty, as is the case for Yu Wensheng.   

The universalism of human rights called into question

Everything I have seen, everything I have felt as I have traveled the world, inspires in me a feeling of extreme fragility regarding the state of human rights and and the state of universalism. There is no continent, no country that is superior to criticism. The defense of universalism is the issue of the moment. We must be aware that this notion, which was obvious to the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, is today threatened from all sides. Its enemies are called regionalism, culturalism, relativism. It is the idea that there would be several kinds of human rights or that they should be subject to reasonable accommodation according to cultures and traditions. As if there were only one woman in the world who would find it normal to be raped for cultural reasons, only one person thrown into a prison without a fair trial who would not feel the same sense of injustice. As if torture was felt differently according to religion or skin color!  

Human rights – a fundamental requirement felt everywhere

These assaults on universalism are taking place before our very eyes, within our societies, but also on the international scene. At the UN, China is claiming “Asian values”. As if homo asiaticus had less of an aspiration for freedom than others. This is what we must forcefully refute if we want to be useful to Yu Wensheng and to all those who endure the same fate, to show that human rights are not a Western concept but, as Jeanne Hersch said so well, “a fundamental requirement that is felt everywhere”. Geneva can be proud to have a bar association and a Martin Ennals Foundation particularly committed to the defense of human rights defenders. This is an essential asset in a fight that is far from being won. In this capital of international law and diplomacy, we must tell the Chinese who aspire to play a central role in the multilateral space that we will never forget Yu Wensheng, never give up on freedom and dignity, that these principles are also part of our very “face”, that we have no more reason to want to lose than they do.