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Rights groups call on Geneva to install permanent monument for Cao Shunli and all victims of deadly reprisals

Ten years after her death in custody on 14 March 2014, civil society, UN staff, and diplomats paid tribute to Chinese woman human rights defender, Cao Shunli, in a solemn reception outside the UN headquarters. Rights groups unveiled a commemorative bust of Cao, calling on Geneva’s local authorities to make it a permanent public homage to her memory and that of all human rights defenders targeted for cooperating with the UN.

Human rights organisations held a series of tribute events to the late human rights activist Cao Shunli on the day marking the tenth anniversary of her death in a case of ‘deadly reprisals’ by the Chinese government.

Eighteen organisations, including ISHR, hosted a reception on Geneva’s Place des Nations, opposite the United Nations headquarters, to honour the life and work of Cao and to stand in solidarity with all activists seeking to uphold and defend fundamental rights and freedoms in China.

At this event, organisers unveiled a bust and plaque commemorating Cao Shunli before some 80 participants, making a solemn, public appeal to Geneva’s Administrative Council – the city’s executive branch – to agree to making this a permanent public monument. A petition seeking signatures in support of this move can be signed here.

Cao’s fate is intimately linked to Geneva. She died in part because she was resolved to come here and use the UN human rights system, the platform this city strives to offer to all those who stand up for fundamental rights and freedoms. We call on local authorities, the custodians of this global centre of the universal human rights system, to keep this monument and to join in paying tribute to one of their own.
Phil Lynch, Executive Director of ISHR

Commissioned in September 2023, the bust is the work of Czech artist Marie Šeborová. It was unveiled after a full day of tributes to Cao and all activists who are standing up against China’s widespread human rights violations.

Throughout the day, ISHR and partners hosted a photo exhibition commemorating Cao’s legacy and shining a spotlight on other courageous individuals from mainland China, Hong Kong, Tibet, and the Uyghur region, who have faced severe reprisals for their activism, some including for their engagement with the United Nations.

Cao's story is emblematic, but it is unfortunately not the only one. The Chinese government has detained, tortured, and disappeared countless other human rights champions and their relatives. This includes my husband, Ding Jiaxi, jailed for 12 years, but also many fearless women human rights lawyers and defenders, such as Li Qiaochu, Chow Hang-tung, or Li Yuhan.
Sophie Luo, human rights activist and wife of detained Chinese lawyer Ding Jiaxi
For how long will the Chinese government enjoy a free pass? It’s unacceptable to normalise deadly reprisals against defenders who only sought to cooperate with the United Nations and to strive for a just, rights-respecting China. Cao’s courage inspires defenders globally: with this bust, we will honour her legacy until there is accountability for all victims of reprisals.
Renee Xia, Director of Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD)

Recording of the 14 March reception to pay tribute to Cao Shunli and honour Chinese, Tibetan, Uyghur and Hong Kong defenders who hold the Chinese government accountable.

Participants at the reception also held a moment of silence in honour of Cao and all human rights defenders victims of reprisals globally. In doing so, they called back to a gesture that was met with indignation in 2014 by China’s representatives at the UN Human Rights Council, in the immediate aftermath of Cao’s death.

At the time, when ISHR and other rights groups sought to observe a moment of silence, the Chinese delegation disrupted the session for an hour and a half.

Events like this are crucial because they give visibility to human rights defenders who are risking their lives to advance justice and accountability. Cao Shunli's case is important in understanding how China retaliates against individuals who dare to protect fundamental values, including Uyghurs such as Yalqun Rozi and Rahila Dawut.
Zumretay Arkin, Director of global advocacy for the World Uyghur Congress
This exhibition portrays stories and difficult moments faced by Tibetan human rights defenders and their families, including Tibetan language advocate Tashi Wangchuk, and beloved community leader and monk Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, who died in Chinese custody. Amid China’s efforts to silence Tibetan human rights defenders, ensuring their faces are seen and their stories are heard, is more crucial than ever.
Tenzin Yangzom, the Tibet Advocacy Coalition

To this day, no individual or organisation has been held accountable for Cao’s death, which remains one of the longest-standing unresolved cases in the UN Secretary-General’s annual reports on reprisals against civil society actors for engaging with the United Nations.

Earlier on Thursday, UN Special Procedures experts renewed their 2014 call for a ‘full and fair investigation’ into the circumstances of Cao’s death. ‘Failure to properly investigate a potentially unlawful death may amount to a violation of the right to life’, the experts emphasised, adding that ‘Chinese authorities have regrettably intensified their persecution of human rights defenders and others who seek to work with the UN in the field of human rights’.

This UN experts’ call was echoed in a joint statement, also published today and signed by over 30 organisations, including ISHR, which urged UN Member States to hold China accountable for this ‘paradigmatic case of reprisals’.

The European Human Rights Ambassadors from Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom also released a joint statement today on Cao  and other victims of deadly reprisals. The ambassadors recognised that the ability of civil society actors to ‘safely and freely engage with the United Nations is indispensable to the protection of human rights everywhere’.

ISHR and our civil society partners (full list below) call on Geneva authorities to accept our request to make this bust a permanent monument in a prominent location at the heart of international Geneva. This would pay tribute to Cao and show the city’s support for calls for accountability for her death and for the fate of all victims of State reprisals.


Background:

Cao Shunli was a Chinese woman human rights defender and lawyer who campaigned for independent civil society voices to be meaningfully consulted in the Chinese government’s national reports to its first and second Universal Periodic Reviews (UPR).

On 14 September 2013, Chinese authorities detained her at the Beijing Capital International Airport as she was travelling to Geneva to participate in a human rights training, one month before China’s second UPR. She was forcibly disappeared for five weeks, resurfacing in criminal detention and charged with ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble’.

By October 2013, it was clear that Cao Shunli was experiencing serious medical issues while in detention. After months of denial of adequate medical treatment, rejected appeals by her lawyers for bail on humanitarian grounds, and despite multiple calls from the international community for her urgent release, Cao died of multiple organ failure on 14 March 2014 in a hospital under heavy police guard to keep out her lawyers and friends.

 


*Full list of participating organisations:

  • International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)
  • The Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD)
  • Amnesty International
  • Front Line Defenders
  • Society for Threatened People (Gesellschaft für Bedrohte Völker)
  • Tibet Justice Center
  • International Commission of Jurists (ICJ)
  • The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders – a partnership of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT)
  • Human Rights in China
  • Humanitarian China
  • World Uyghur Congress (WUC)
  • Swiss-Tibetan Friendship Association (GSTF/SAST)
  • Art for Human Rights
  • Martin Ennals Award
  • Hong Kong Center for Human Rights
  • Human Rights Watch
  • Human Rights First
Join the campaign, pay tribute to Cao Shunli!

Join the campaign, pay tribute to Cao Shunli!

Ten years ago, Chinese woman human rights defender Cao Shunli was a victim of deadly reprisals for engaging with the United Nations. The International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) and partners are paying her tribute and honouring other Chinese, Uyghur, Tibetan and Hong Kong human rights defenders who continue to hold the Chinese government accountable.

Pay her tribute

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