Cao Shunli died five years ago. She stood up to China on human rights, and so must we

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By Frances Eve

Originally published in The Guardian on March 14, 2019

Five years ago today, Chinese activist Cao Shunli died in a Beijing hospital surrounded by police.

Her ordeal began in September 2013, when she tried to fly to Geneva to attend a session of the UN human rights council (UNHRC). Cao had submitted information on extralegal detention and torture in China to the UN and expressed the hope that if she could get even “50 or 100 words” into a UN report, “many of our problems could start to get addressed”.

Cao never made the flight. Police took her away at the airport, detained her for six months, and denied her medical treatment despite repeated warnings from her lawyer that her health was deteriorating, until it was too late. Doctors at the hospital expressed shock at her condition; it seemed she had simply been left to die in her cell. No state agent has been punished for her death.

This week is an opportunity to pay tribute to Cao Shunli, but also importantly, for the international community to speak up and remind the Chinese government of its obligations to safeguard human rights. On March 15, the UNHRC will be meeting to adopt a final report on recommendations made in November during China’s third Universal Periodic Review (UPR). The UPR is a peer review process of a country’s human rights record that happens every four years. While it can be political, all states must submit themselves equally to scrutiny by fellow governments.

States can use Friday’s meeting to speak out and pay tribute to Cao Shunli and all those who have died under Chinese police custody, reject China’s denials made during the UPR over its rights abuses in Xinjiang, and build momentum towards passing a resolution on the human rights situation in China.

A UNHRC resolution is a formal expression of the opinion or will of the council. Since the council’s creation in 2006, there has not been a single country-specific resolution directed at China despite a worsening rights situation. It’s time for the UNHRC to end its double standards and mandate an international fact-finding mission to look into the credible reports of internment camps in Xinjiang.

Many human rights defenders, like Cao, and ethnic and religious minorities have died in Chinese custody due to torture or deprivation of medical treatment. China’s only Nobel peace prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, Uighur scholar Muhammad Salih Hajim, and Tibetan monk Tenzin Delek Rinpoche all died in police custody in recent years.

Others, like detained citizen journalist Huang Qi, await such a fate without urgent intervention. Police have denied Huang, who has kidney and heart diseases, medical treatment and have repeatedly beaten him in custody. His condition has deteriorated to the point where supporters fear he may become “another Cao Shunli” and UN independent experts recently expressed concern he might die in detention.

Ten other Chinese activists, journalists, scholars, and lawyers are on a medical watchlist of political prisoners, launched after Cao’s death to draw attention to China’s practice of torture by withholding medical treatment.

The Chinese government under Xi Jinping has so far faced no meaningful repercussions internationally for the deaths in custody of prisoners of conscience. Domestically, state agents have enjoyed total impunity while family members, lawyers, friends, and supporters have been threatened, disappeared, detained, or tortured.

In fact, after Cao’s death, the UN general assembly re-elected China to the UN human rights council in 2016 by a greater number of votes than in 2013. Chinese Communist party mouthpiece the People’s Daily proudly heralded it as proof that China’s human rights progress had “received widespread approval from the international community”.

It’s no coincidence that following a weak response internationally to the deaths of prominent human rights defenders and a widespread crackdown on civil society that the Xi government felt confident enough to establish a system of mass internment camps for ethnic Uighurs and Muslims and turn the Xinjiang region into a “no-rights zone”.

Human rights defenders and ethnic and religious minorities in China face real risks for standing up to the Chinese government. They don’t pay with lost trade deals but with their lives. The risks of speaking out in defence of human rights and fundamental freedoms in China include losing your job, your home, your family, or being disappeared, arbitrarily detained, tortured, or even killed.

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.” States should remember her spirit and not be afraid to speak truth to power.

  • Frances Eve is the deputy director of research at Chinese Human Rights Defenders

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