Saving a dissident with diplomacy and international law

In April 2012, the escape of a Chinese dissident from house arrest in Dongshigu Village, Linyi City to the US embassy in Beijing put the Obama administration’s diplomacy skills to the test. Chen Guangcheng is a human rights organiser whose activism around China’s family planning policies landed him in prison between 2006 and 2010. After he was released, Chen Guancheng and his family were placed under house arrest.

Chen Guangcheng made his escape from house arrest to the US Embassy on the eve of the United States’ and China’s annual negotiations on strategic and economic issues. Negotiations between United States and Chinese officials involving Chen Guangcheng’s fate were conducted under top secrecy, at the Chinese government’s insistence. By 19 May 2012, Chen Guancheng was able to leave China for New York to take up a residency at New York University.

For this special discussion, Professor Harold Hongju Koh, the then US State Department’s legal adviser who was instrumental in the negotiations, analyses the lessons this case can teach us on harnessing international law in diplomatic disputes.