“Cao Shunli paid the highest price for trying to participate in China’s rights review at the Council,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “At the two-year mark of the detention that led to her death, it is shocking that there has still been no accountability, or any sign of an investigation.”
In 2013, Ms. Cao, a longtime activist, pressed the Chinese government to allow independent civil society contributions to the drafting of the government’s UPR report. Under the UPR process, governments are encouraged by the United Nations to consult with civil society. Cao submitted public letters and organized peaceful protests in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs demanding governmental transparency in preparations for the review.
Following her detention, her whereabouts were unknown for five weeks, and it only became clear on October 21, 2013, just a day before China’s UPR took place in Geneva, that she had been put under criminal detention for “unlawful assembly.”
Cao’s lawyer and family members repeatedly called attention to her worsening medical condition in detention. In November 2013, she was diagnosed by a prison doctor with illnesses including pneumonia in both lungs.
Her family repeatedly requested she be granted medical parole, but only when she fell into a coma in February 2014 did prison officials transfer her to a Beijing hospital. Police then focused on pressuring her family to accept medical parole for her, so that she would not die in custody. Police also took into custody at least five of Cao’s supporters who went to the hospital while she was in critical condition.
Cao Shunli died on March 14, 2014, just before the spring session of the Human Rights Council began.
Chinese authorities provided little explanation for their conduct surrounding her detention and death. At the time officials stated, “No one suffers reprisal for taking part in lawful activities or international mechanisms.” More recently some have suggested Cao was a criminal who was being prosecuted according to the law, or questioned whether she was a human rights defender.
In the Human Rights Council session immediately following Cao’s death, Chinese diplomats resorted to procedural tactics to block NGOs in Geneva from observing a moment of silence at the Council on the occasion of her death. Many observers noted that a state which sought to silence one of its most prominent human rights defenders then tried to stop other defenders to honor her memory with silence.
The past two years have seen a significant increase in Beijing’s hostility towards civil society – activists, writers, and lawyers have been targeted for detention and imprisonment. The domestic crackdown, coupled with Cao Shunli’s detention and death, have intimidated and discouraged independent domestic voices from providing vigorous, constructive input into Council proceedings regarding China, including its upcoming November 2015 review under the Convention Against Torture.
“One of the Council’s greatest challenges is in holding all member states to account, including powerful governments like China’s,” said Richardson. “The Human Rights Council has an institutional responsibility to address all cases of state reprisals against those engaging with UN mechanisms. The time is past due for China to account for its actions. The Council’s credibility is at stake.”