Human Rights Lawyer David Matas Talks on Crimes of Forced Organ Harvesting

David Matas at a dinner.
David Matas at a dinner with UVA law professor Dr. Shanchaze and some of the law students in charge of organizing the first-ever Human Rights Week at UVA School of Law, and event organizers Tong Wang and Tatiana Denning, D.O. (Image: Tatiana Denning via Nspirement)

Nobel Peace Prize nominee and international human rights lawyer David Matas has spent years researching and uncovering the crime of forced organ harvesting taking place in China against a group known as Falun Gong, or Falun Dafa. The practice itself is a peaceful one, teaching one to take the principles of truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance as guidance for how to live one’s life, while also incorporating exercises to improve one’s health. The practice has been persecuted in China for over 20 years now, and Mr. Matas has spent the majority of the last 13 years of his career working to raise awareness of these atrocities, all in an effort to bring them to an end.

David Matas and David Kilgour lecture globally on forced organ harvesting

David Matas and his colleague David Kilgour have tirelessly researched this issue since 2006, and are considered experts on the subject. They have authored many papers and books on the topic, and have also had their work featured in documentaries such as Human Harvest and Red Reign. They both travel internationally to lecture on forced organ harvesting and continue their research with dedication and determination.

David Matas travels internationally to lecture on forced organ harvesting.
David Matas travels internationally to lecture on forced organ harvesting. (Image: Tatiana Denning via Nspirement)

Interviewer: Thank you for talking with me. I know you’ve spent many hours meticulously researching the crime of forced organ harvesting in China against Falun Gong. Tell me a little about the type of work you’ve been doing recently.

David Matas: Well, typically what I’ve done is, I’ve put in abstracts and I go to conferences and present papers to transplant doctors, or bioethicists, or whoever is gathering for the conference. And I’ve been doing that largely as a way of advancing research in the field, because when you put it in an abstract, it has to be something new, it can’t be repetitive, and you’ve got an informed audience. It’s a way of kind of workshopping the research that I’m doing.

Interviewer: I met you recently at a traveling event you participated in central Virginia to help raise awareness of forced organ harvesting. During the five-stop event, between October 17 and 21, the documentary Human Harvest was screened, and following the film, both you and Dr. Jessica Russo of Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting (DAFOH) held a question and answer session. How do you think the event went?

Dr. Jessica Russo of Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting (DAFOH) and David Matas lecturing at the University of Virginia School of Law.
Dr. Jessica Russo of Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting (DAFOH) and David Matas lecturing at the University of Virginia School of Law. (Image: Tatiana Denning via Nspirement)

David Matas: Good. It helped to raise awareness. I think there were a lot of people who saw the film and stayed for the question and answer portion after, who simply weren’t aware of the issue. So it was an eye-opener.

And also what I would say is that, when you’re dealing with human rights, it’s all very well to talk at conferences and do research, but ultimately, you have to get the message out to people at large because unless people at large are mobilized to do something about it, the actual research doesn’t have much impact. So I think it’s something that really needs to be done [these types of events].

Interviewer: Why do you believe the Chinese government does nothing to stop forced organ harvesting?

David Matas: Well, they started it, I mean, it’s their project. It would be stopping themselves from doing something that they decided to do. I mean, this is not a black market of private operators that they’re just turning a blind eye to. This is the government itself doing it. They started it initially for technological advancement, to make money, to repress Falun Gong, and now the system’s hooked on it. I mean, the whole health system. The transplant industry doesn’t just support itself, it supports the whole health system.

What happened was that the Chinese government went from socialist to capitalism, which meant withdrawing money from the health sector, and as a result, the health sector needed an alternative source of funds just to keep going. And that alternative source of funds became selling transplants. So the whole health system has become dependent on selling transplants. You take that out of the system, the health system shuts down. So it’s an impossible situation for them to stop now.

A painting from the Art of Zhen, Shan, Ren (Truth, Compassion, Tolerance) International Exhibition depicts forced organ harvesting from a Falun Gong practitioner in China.
A painting from the Art of Zhen, Shan, Ren (Truth, Compassion, Tolerance) International Exhibition depicts forced organ harvesting from a Falun Gong practitioner in China. (Image: via the Art of Zhen, Shan, Ren)

I mean, they did look at it, it was in the transition period between Hu Jintao and Xi Xiping, because when Hu Jintao was fading out, there were two rival camps. One was Bo Xilai, which was more or less a continuation of Jiang Zemin, and Xi Jinping. And the Xi Jinping faction was trying to figure out how to sideline Bo Xilai. And one of the things they looked at was sidelining him by pinning on him the persecution of Falun Gong, the killing of Falun Gong for their organs, and using that as a way of getting rid of him. But they decided not to do it. I mean, they did eventually get rid of him, but not that way, because it was just too central to everything that was going on in China. I mean, they were at a point where they couldn’t unravel it. So they just used another tactic to get rid of him. These are internal Communist Party discussions which have been leaked, which show this.

Wen Jiabao, who was premier when Hu Jintao was president, was part of the Xi Jinping faction, he was sympathetic to Falun Gong. I mean, the persecution of Falun Gong was always controversial internally within the Party, and so Wen Jiabao had his own agenda of unraveling the persecution of Falun Gong and also trying to get rid of Bo Xilai and help Xi Jinping, and this was his solution. But the Party didn’t buy it, or the Xi Jinping faction didn’t buy it.

Interviewer: It sounds like a missed opportunity to bring an end to these crimes. Based on your research, who is benefiting from the huge profits from organ harvesting?

David Matas: The doctors, hospitals, other staff, the nurses. I mean, basically, and there’s media reports to this effect, organ harvesting is keeping these institutions going. So anybody who works for the institutions is a beneficiary. And I mean, transplant tourism is a form of tourism, so it’s hotels, restaurants, they all benefit. It’s an important part of the Chinese economy, a multi-billion dollar industry.

Interviewer: With regard to the general population in China, they are unaware of the forced organ harvesting, and they instead believe that the organs are being donated. What are your thoughts on this?

David Matas: Well, I mean, that’s standard Communist Party propaganda. They don’t inform people about the Korean War, they don’t inform them about mass starvation and the devastation of the cultural revolution, the Tiananmen Square Massacre they called an incident. This is standard Communist Party operating procedure. The people don’t know this, and I would say, they’re not going to know anything about the Party from inside, because the Party basically presents a false picture of what it is.

Interviewer: There still seems to be some discussion on whether or not the persecution of Falun Gong is a genocide. Why do you think that is?

David Matas: It’s a confusing legal debate, and an academic debate, regarding intent. Sure, they’ve been targeted [Falun Gong], obviously they’ve been targeted. But the question is with the individuals who are doing the killing, and their intent. I mean, some of them are just doing it for the money. And some of them are just targeting the group, like Xi Jinping and Lu Gong and the 610 Office. They’re not doing it for the money. But there are others, like the surgeons who are getting these cash envelopes, red envelopes. They engage in a game of willful blindness.

I mean, as far as I’m concerned, the Nazi doctors, they also pretended they didn’t know what was going on, some of them. And they were all convicted, and some of them were sentenced to death, and even hanged, using the same defense that the Chinese transplant surgeons now use. So I definitely think those involved should be held accountable.

Interviewer: In your opinion, what can be done to put an end to this kind of murderous activity?

David Matas: Well, ultimately, it’s the Chinese who are going to have to stop what’s happening in China. I mean, the notion that we in Virginia or Manitoba can stop it I think is unrealistic. What we can do is avoid complicity. And when it comes to what’s going on in China itself, I think we can put in some international pressure, say we know, say we’re sympathetic to the victims.

I mean, ultimately, when you’re dealing with human rights violations, you’ve got three different audiences: victims, outsiders, and perpetrators. From my point of view, the first audience has to be the victims, because we should be telling them that we know, we’re concerned, that we have solidarity. And I think a lot more of that can be done. When it comes to the public at large, I think, again, we can do more in terms of publicity, awareness, just getting the message out. In terms of changing China, well, I think we just have to put forth any pressure we can from outside, and not pretend that everything is fine.

I think the China Tribunal said something which is worth remembering, which is that when you’re dealing with China, you’re dealing with a mass-murdering criminal enterprise, and you have to relate to them that way. You can’t just pretend that it’s an ordinary group of people engaged in ordinary activity. This group of people is doing these things, and you have to keep that in mind, in whatever context you’re dealing with them.

Interviewer: You mentioned the independent China Tribunal that met this summer in London to investigate the crime of organ harvesting in China. What are your thoughts on their findings?

David Matas: Positive. It got a lot of publicity, which is useful in getting public awareness. Substantively, there’s a lot of stuff on the Internet now; the materials they read, the witnesses they heard, which people can just access by going to the tribunal website.

Even though it was a people’s tribunal, and not a government or inter-government tribunal, it functioned like a tribunal. It heard witnesses, they were independent, starting from fresh on the issue, and [the tribunal] had a strong reputation in terms of the work they had done in other areas in the past. So it was a credible result.

In terms of the law, a lot of the evidence we knew before, but their mandate was to say what are the international legal crimes. And they gave statements about that which were quite useful, about crimes against humanity and about torture, and a component of genocide. So I think in terms of the legal violations and the relevant international law that’s in place, I would say it’s now a basic or foundational document to which reference should be made in discussing this issue.

Interviewer: I know you keep a busy schedule working on this issue. Where are you off to next?

David Matas: Let’s see, Monday I’m going to Edmonton, then Wednesday I’m going to Vancouver, then Saturday I’m going to Australia, then I’m going to New Zealand, then Israel, next to Japan, and then I’m going to Luxembourg. Then I’m back in Canada for two days, then I’m going to Brussels…it’s never-ending.

Interviewer: So that’s over the next month or so. How do you find the energy to keep up this pace? I think people half your age would have trouble keeping this kind of schedule.

David Matas: Well, it needs to be done.

And with that final thought, Mr. Matas is off to continue what he does best — work to shed light on these injustices.

UVA law students listen to David Matas speak on forced organ harvesting in China at a dinner following his lecture at the first-ever Human RIghts Week at UVA School of Law.
UVA law students listen to David Matas speak on forced organ harvesting in China at a dinner following his lecture at the first-ever Human Rights Week at UVA School of Law. (Image: Tatiana Denning via Nspirement)

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  • Raven Montmorency

    Raven Montmorency is a pen name used for a writer based in India. She has been writing with her main focus on Lifestyle and human rights issues around the world.

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