Cao Shunli

Courtesy of openDemocracy

Four years ago this month, Chinese authorities stopped activist Cao Shunli at Beijing’s airport. After questioning her about her plans to travel to Geneva, where she was slated to participate in training sessions about the United Nations Human Rights Council, Cao was detained, held incommunicado for a month, and then charged with “picking quarrels and stirring up troubles.” She became gravely ill in detention, was denied adequate medical care, and died in March 2014. When nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) tried to hold a moment of silence for her at the council, Chinese officials blocked the move.

For years the Chinese government has obstructed human rights activists who work on China from participating in the UN. It prevents activists from traveling to Geneva or New York, harasses them while they are there, and sometimes intimidates and interrogates them upon return to China. Chinese officials have also harassed UN officials, staff, and independent experts, and used its membership on a key committee to block NGOs critical of China from being granted UN accreditation. Some UN officials have pushed back against or ignored improper Chinese pressure. Others have soft-pedaled their concerns, presumably to avoid confrontation with China. 

Several UN human rights experts have pressed China for an inquiry into Cao’s death. China, which disputes the very legitimacy of human rights defenders, has largely ignored these requests, providing no explanation for the circumstances of her death.

The UN has only recently began taking steps toward addressing China’s – and other governments’ – abusive actions at the world forum. Andrew Gilmour, the assistant secretary-general for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, will soon report on his office’s yearlong effort to track reprisals against human rights defenders trying to work with the UN. That report includes information about cases like Cao’s, actions taken, and responses received.

But it’s still unclear how far the UN will go in punishing abusive governments like China for its actions in cases like Cao’s. At a minimum, the Human Rights Council should have a discussion on cases of government harassment of activists at the UN. But neither this, nor a condemnation of China at the upcoming Universal Period Review of its human rights record, is likely to prevent future outrages against activists.