China harvested organs from political prisoners on substantial scale, says tribunal

Forced harvesting of organs from prisoners of conscience in China has been “substantial,” says an interim judgment of an independent “people’s tribunal” set up to determine whether the country’s transplantation practices breached international criminal law.

The former English judge Geoffrey Nice QC, the tribunal’s chair, said after a three day evidence gathering session, “We, the tribunal members, are all certain, unanimously, beyond reasonable doubt, that in China forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience has been practised for a substantial period of time, involving a very substantial number of victims . . . by state organised or approved organisations or individuals.”

The tribunal found that the practices breached the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including articles 3 (right to life), 6 (recognition as a person before the law), 7 (equality before the law), 9 (not to be subject to arbitrary arrest), 10 (full equality to a fair and public hearing in determination of rights), 11 (presumption of innocence), and 5 (torture).

The Chinese government and the Transplantation Society, which has “official relations” with the World Health Organization and offers “global leadership in transplantation . . . and guidance on ethical practice,” had not submitted evidence.

The Independent Tribunal into Forced Organ Harvesting from Prisoners of Conscience in China heard evidence in public in London on 8-10 December. A seven strong panel questioned 30 witnesses, including refugees from China, doctors, and investigators.

Its full judgment, due early next year, could have major implications for doctors and institutions worldwide that collaborate with China on transplantation related activities.

The Chinese ambassador to the UK and prominent doctors in China involved in transplantation were invited repeatedly to give evidence but had not responded, said Nice. The tribunal invited evidence from the current and former presidents of TTS. Three said that they would not attend the hearings, he said.

Nice emphasised that the tribunal remains open to receiving evidence through its website (

Jean-Pierre Mongeau, executive director of the Transplantation Society, told The BMJ, “While TTS will not be providing a testimony at this time, we have been a firm supporter of the reform in China, and we applaud the laws that have been enacted.” In 2007 China banned commercial organ trading,1 and a 2011 law insisted on consent.2 In 2015 China vowed to halt the harvesting of organs from death row prisoners (not prisoners of conscience).34

The tribunal was convened by the non-profit International Coalition to End Transplant Abuse in China (ETAC), which includes lawyers, academics, ethicists, doctors, researchers, and human rights advocates. However, the tribunal is independent from the coalition, and the tribunal’s panel is working “pro bono,” Nice said.

Susie Hughes, executive director of ETAC, said, “From 2000, there was a rapid increase in the number of transplants [in China]. The source of the organs underpinning this high level of activity has never been explained in a credible way by the Chinese government.

“During the 2000s, analysis of various sources of emerging evidence led to the conclusion that people who practised Falun Gong were being killed to provide the organs fuelling China’s transplant boom.

“It is common for Chinese transplant professionals to parrot the Communist Party line saying that those who have been speaking out . . . have a ‘political agenda.’”

In 2006 a whistleblower claimed that more than 4000 Falun Gong practitioners had been killed for their organs at the hospital in China where she worked. Subsequent independent investigators, including David Kilgour, former Canadian secretary of state for the Asia-Pacific, David Matas, an international human rights lawyer, and the investigative journalist Ethan Gutmann, have concluded that such practices occurred

Sitting on the panel alongside Nice are Martin Elliott, professor of cardiothoracic surgery at University College London, Andrew Khoo, who has a private law practice in Malaysia, Regina Paulose, a US attorney who focuses on international criminal law and human rights, Shadi Sadr, an Iranian human rights lawyer, Nicholas Vetch, a UK businessman, and Arthur Waldron, a US historian and professor of international relations at the University of Pennsylvania.

Nice said, “It was decided not to have a panel of people already knowledgeable about, or particularly concerned about, allegations of forced organ harvesting that have already been made”

Informal people’s tribunals fill a gap, he said, when formal national and international bodies failed to deal with allegations of serious crimes by states or state supported bodies. One example was Bertrand Russell’s 1967 tribunal that investigated US policy in the Vietnam war.