China: Tenth anniversary of the death of Cao Shunli

Alejandro Luengo

Civil society organisations, including FIDH and OMCT within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, honour the memory of Cao Shunli, a Chinese human rights lawyer who died in detention ten years ago, highlighting the urgent need for justice and accountability.

Today, we pay tribute to Cao Shunli, and all human rights defenders targeted by the Chinese government for their commitment to uphold the promise of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Cao Shunli was a brave Chinese woman human rights defender and lawyer. Working with fellow activists, Cao documented abuses, including the now-abolished ‘Re-education through Labour’ extrajudicial detention system, which she was also subjected to as a result of her human rights work. She campaigned for independent civil society to be meaningfully consulted and to be able to contribute to the Chinese government’s national reports to its first and second Universal Periodic Reviews (UPR). In an attempt to speak with government officials about the UPR, Cao courageously organised peaceful sit-ins with other concerned citizens outside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs despite great risks. She also submitted information on extralegal detention and torture in China to the UN and expressed the hope that ‘if we could get even 100 words’ into a UN report, ‘many of our problems could start to get addressed.’

On 14 September 2013, Chinese authorities detained Cao at the Beijing Capital International Airport as she was traveling to Geneva to participate in a human rights training, one month before China’s second UPR. Cao was forcibly disappeared for five weeks, until she resurfaced in criminal detention and was 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.

Cao was one of the 2014 finalists of the prestigious Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders. To this day, there has been no accountability for Cao Shunli’s death. The Chinese government refuses to admit wrongdoing, despite repeated calls in 2014 and 2019 by UN Special Procedures experts for a full investigation into this ‘deadly reprisal’.

Her case is 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. China is one of the most consistent perpetrators of reprisals over time, and one of the most egregious perpetrators in terms of the sheer number of individuals targeted. Cao is not alone: her courage, but also the abuses she endured, are unfortunately those of other human rights defenders who paid a high cost for cooperating with the UN. Her close colleague, Chen Jianfang was forcibly disappeared under Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location (RSDL) from 19-20 March 2019 after paying tribute to Cao Shunli on the 5th anniversary of her death. Chen was sentenced to four years and six months in jail for ‘inciting subversion of State power’ and left prison on 21 October 2023, after which authorities subjected her to strict surveillance. UN experts have raised with the Chinese government acts of reprisals against Chen Jianfang, but also Jiang Tianyong, Li Qiaochu, Dolkun Isa, Li Wenzu and Wang Qiaoling, among others. The recent instances of intimidation and harassment against NGO participants in China’s 4th UPR in January 2024 further highlight the gravity of the situation.

Li Qiaochu, Xu Zhiyong, Ding Jiaxi, Yu Wensheng, Xu Yan, Huang Xueqin, Li Yuhan, Chang Weiping: many other Chinese human rights defenders are today detained, disappeared, and at grave risk, for upholding the promise of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

These documented acts do not account for the even greater self-censorship and refusal to engage with the United Nation as a result of a generalised climate of fear.

14 March 2024 will mark the 10-year anniversary of Cao Shunli’s death. Ten years ago, when ISHR and many other human rights groups sought to observe a moment of silence at the Human Rights Council in her memory, the Chinese delegation, together with other delegations, disrupted the session for an hour and half. Cao Shunli is a paradigmatic case of reprisals, not only because of her prominence, but also due to the array of severe human rights violations against her, committed in total impunity.

These range from Chinese authorities blocking herexit from her own country, enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention, lack of due process, torture or ill-treatment and denial of adequate medical care, to subsequent death in custody, and the lack of accountability for these abuses. The lack of any progress in achieving accountability underscores the urgent need for continued international attention and pressure on the Chinese government to ensure justice for Cao and all human rights defenders who face persecution for their work.

Cao Shunli said before her death: ‘Our impact may be large, may be small, and may be nothing. But we must try. It is our duty to the dispossessed and it is the right of civil society.’

Today, we pay tribute to Cao Shunli’s legacy, one that has inspired countless human rights defenders in China and abroad. We urge UN Member States to call for a full, independent, impartial investigation into her death. We reaffirm that no perpetrator of reprisals, no matter how powerful, is above scrutiny, and that reprisals are fundamentally incompatible with the values of the United Nations and of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

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  • Co-signatories

    1. Art for Human Rights
    2. ARTICLE 19
    3. Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)
    4. Asian Lawyers Network (ALN)
    5. Campaign for Uyghurs
    6. CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation
    7. CSW (Christian Solidarity Worldwide)
    8. Front Line Defenders
    9. HK Labour Rights Monitor
    10. Hong Kong Centre for Human Rights
    11. Hong Kong Democracy Council (HKDC)
    12. Hong Kong Watch
    13. Human Rights in China
    14. Humanitarian China
    15. Humanitarian China
    16. International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI)
    17. International Campaign for Tibet
    18. International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), within the framework of the
    Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
    19. International Service for Human Rights
    20. International Tibet Network
    21. Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada
    22. Martin Ennals Foundation
    23. Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD)
    24. PEN International
    25. Safeguard Defenders
    26. The 29 Principles
    27. The Rights Practice
    28. Tibet Justice Center
    29. Uyghur Human Rights Project
    30. World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), within the framework of the Observatory for
    the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
    31. World Uyghur Congress

  • Member organisations - China

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