U.N. Delays Action on China’s Rights Report

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Originally published by The New York Times on March 20, 2014


In what one Western diplomat called a “very unusual”development, the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva has postponed the adoption of China’s human rights report amid protests over the death in custody of a rights activist in Beijing and reports of delaying tactics by China.

Citing reports from people present at the meeting on Wednesday, Renee Xia, the international director of Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a civil society group, said the Chinese delegation tried to stop representatives of a nongovernmental organization from holding a minute of silence for Cao Shunli, the activist who died last Friday. That resulted in delays that meant the report could not be adopted on Wednesday as expected. The council was expectedto take it up again on Thursday.

Asked to comment, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs requested a fax with questions, but it did not immediately answer.

Ms. Cao, 53, was a prominent rights advocate who had pushed, unsuccessfully, for civil society input into the Chinese rights report, known as the Universal Periodic Review. She had taken part in two months of sit-in protests outside the Foreign Ministry building in Beijing starting last June, calling on the government to reveal how it compiled its report to the United Nations and asking for ordinary citizens to be allowed to contribute.

In 2012, the Chinese government said it considered such information a “state secret,” according to reports from Amnesty International and other rights groups.

There has been a storm of protest from activists over Ms. Cao’s death. Her lawyers and her family say she was denied medical treatment for tuberculosis and other ailments while in custody and died in a Beijing military hospitalafter being rushed to an emergency hospital from the Chaoyang Detention Center, where she had been held since she was detained last September on her way to Geneva for a human rights training program.

The Foreign Ministry says that Ms. Cao had received appropriate medical treatment in detention and that her rights were respected.

Ms. Xia was not present in Geneva but wrote in an email that the Chinese delegation “tried to use a ‘point of order’ to disrupt N.G.O.s calling for a one-minute silence for Cao Shunli.”

Delaying tactics ensued, Ms. Xia wrote. “China said N.G.O.s cannot call for a one-minute silence at the H.R.C. China’s delegates then engaged the H.R.C. president for long informal talks during a break such that there was no time to proceed with the next session to vote on the U.P.R. Working Group’s report on China. But tomorrow,” she wrote, referring to Thursday, “a showdown isexpected.”

A Western diplomat based in Beijing who has contributed to the hearings in Geneva and did not want to be named in keeping with protocol said that while China had tried before to block the participation of nongovernmental organizations, it was “very unusual” for the adoption of a country’s report to be postponed. China joined the 47-member Human Rights Council for a three-year term last November.

Ms. Xia’s account of events on Wednesday echoed an attempt by the Chinese delegation earlier in the week to stop Ti-Anna Wang from speaking at the council about her father, the democracy advocate Wang Bingzhang, who is serving a life prison sentence in China for his political activities.

Here’s how U.N. Watch, a nongovernmental organization based in Geneva that monitors the United Nations, described that clash:

China today interrupted testimony at the United Nations Human Rights Council by the daughter one of its most well-known political prisoners, prompting a high-profile international clash in the plenary, as the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Ireland, Hungary, Switzerland and the Czech Republic squared off against China, Cuba, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela on whether she could be allowed to continue her remarks.

Ms. Wang eventually was able to continue.

Ms. Xia attempted to explain the tension in Geneva thus: “What the government fears the most, I suppose, is that activists like Cao could shatter the carefully maintained facade by China — the image that China wants to project to the world — as a major player not only on the Security Council, but also on the Human Rights Council.”

“The government is afraid that activists like her could tell the world that China has lied about its pledge to protect human rights at home,” Ms. Xia wrote.

Ban Ki-moon, secretary general of the United Nations, has expressed “deep concern” that “a human rights defender was detained in relation to her work and engagement with United Nations human rights mechanisms,” his spokesman, Farhan Haq, said on Wednesday.

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