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HRC55: China fails in disrupting tribute at UN to Cao Shunli, ten years after her death in custody

Despite protests from China and its allies, human rights organisations paid a public tribute to the late activist Cao Shunli during a debate at the UN Human Rights Council, ten years after her death. A victim of ‘deadly reprisals’ against her activism, Cao died in March 2014 after months of arbitrary detention in China.

NGOs and activists paid tribute to the late Chinese human rights defender Cao Shunli by holding a moment of silence and applauding her name during their speaking time at the Human Rights Council.

Following a first statement mentioning Cao by the Minority Rights Group, a human rights defender from the Chinese mainland delivered a joint address to the Council plenary, on behalf of ISHR and 16 organisations accredited to the UN as well as 20 NGOs without consultative status. She concluded this intervention with a short silence and a call to States and NGOs to mirror the courage of human rights defenders and always stand in solidarity with them.

After the intervention, in a sign of respect to Cao Shunli, the room was filled with applause from NGOs and a handful of governments in honour of Cao and in solidarity with victims of reprisals for cooperation with the UN.

It is unacceptable to normalise reprisals. Cao’s courage inspires defenders globally, so let her legacy and name resonate in this room until there is accountability for all victims of reprisals.
A human rights defender from the Chinese mainland.

In an attempt to silence the activist, the Chinese delegation raised a point of order protesting against the statement. This mirrored their 2014 response to ISHR and other NGO’s attempt to hold a moment of silence at the Council after Cao’s death, during which Chinese diplomats disrupted the session for over an hour. This time, Cuba, Venezuela, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and Russia supported China in their attempt to silence activists’ right to speak at the United Nations. 

In response to China’s attacks, Belgium on behalf of the 27 States of the European Union, supported by the United States of America, Canada and the United Kingdom, took the floor to defend NGOs’ right to speak freely.

We cannot allow Cao’s story and her work to be forgotten. Ten years on, no one has been held to account for this emblematic case of tragic State reprisals. UN experts called for an inquiry in 2014, 2019 and once again last week. Governments cannot let Beijing off the hook: they must push for accountability for Cao’s fate and for that of all activists who have been persecuted for cooperating with the UN in standing up for human rights.
Raphaël Viana David, China Programme Manager for ISHR.

This joint statement came a week after the tenth anniversary of Cao Shunli’s death, on 14 March 2024. On that day, dozens of civil society organisations held a series of tribute events in her honour.

This included a photo exhibition opposite the UN’s European headquarters and the unveiling of an initiative urging authorities in Geneva to allow for the installation of a permanent monument in a prominent location at the heart of International Geneva to pay tribute to Cao. An online petition seeking signatures in support of this move is ongoing.

That same day, UN experts urged China to hold a ‘full and fair investigation‘ into the circumstances of Cao’s death. Shortly afterwards, human rights ambassadors from nine European countries called on all States to ensure civil society can have a ‘safe and unhindered access to, and communication with, the UN’.

ISHR and our civil society partners urge the international community to hold the individuals and institutions responsible for Cao’s death to account and to end all acts of reprisals and repressive measures seeking to restrict civil society space and prevent activists from engaging with the UN.

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