China tries to block NGO tribute to dead dissident at UN

Beijing used procedural moves to object to a statement presented on behalf of dozens of rights groups paying tribute to Cao Shunli

Updated - March 23, 2024 10:36 am IST

Published - March 23, 2024 10:35 am IST - Geneva

China tried on March 22 to block a statement before the UN Human Rights Council about a dissident who was detained and died after trying to travel to the council a decade ago.

Beijing used procedural moves to object to a statement presented on behalf of dozens of rights groups paying tribute to Cao Shunli, who was detained as she attempted to travel to Geneva ahead of a UN review of China's rights record.

After being held for several months without charge, she fell gravely ill and died on March 14, 2014.

"Cao's courage inspires defenders globally, so let her legacy and name resonate in this room until there is accountability for all victims of reprisals," said a Chinese human rights defender whose identity was not given.

Speaking on behalf of 37 non-governmental organisations — including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Service for Human Rights — she included a short silence, which she said was in honour of Cao.

She also urged the diplomats in the room to "mirror the courage of all human rights defenders and victims of reprisals and always stand in solidarity with them".

China's representative, Han Xincheng then demanded the floor, complaining that the NGO speaker was using her time "to observe silence and provoke confrontation", and asked the council president halt her intervention.

He was backed by the representatives of Cuba, Venezuela and Russia.

North Korea's representative, deputy ambassador Pang Kwang Hyok, also chimed in, asking that the council president "ensure that the speaker strictly observe the rules of procedure, by respecting dignified sovereign states and polite manner".

'Rest in peace'

The European Union, along with the United States, Canada and Britain defended the NGOs' right to speak.

Human Rights Council members "have no authority to dictate the content of NGO statements", U.S. representative Kaitlin Sandin told the gathering.

"It is essential to protect freedom of expression in this forum, which includes the right to express oneself through silence," she said, also highlighting that the NGO speaker had not requested that others join in a moment of silence.

Council president Omar Zniber of Morocco said the procedural rules needed to be clarified, but in the end allowed the NGO speaker to complete her statement.

She did so, speaking in Chinese.

"Dearest Big Sister Cao, rest in peace; there will be light at the end of the night," she said, to loud applause.

China's effort Friday to block the statement mirrored its response 10 years ago to another NGO attempt to hold a moment of silence in the council for Cao, although that time the disruption lasted for over an hour.

A group of UN experts reiterated a longstanding demand to Chinese authorities to "fully and fairly investigate the circumstances that led to Cao Shunli's death and hold those responsible to account.

The also urged Chinese authorities to "freely allow any of its citizens to engage safely with the UN".

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