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China: UN experts renew calls for probe into death of Cao Shunli

GENEVA (14 March 2019) - Five years after the death in custody of human rights defender and lawyer, Cao Shunli, UN experts have renewed their call for a comprehensive and independent investigation into her death by Chinese authorities.

“Cao Shunli’s case is emblematic of the struggle that many human rights defenders in China face. She paid the ultimate price for her work, and today, on the fifth anniversary of her death, we renew our call for an independent, impartial and comprehensive investigation into her death, with a view to bringing those responsible to justice,” the experts said.

The UN experts said human rights defenders in China are at risk of enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention and ill-treatment in custody for their work.

Cao Shunli was arrested on 14 September 2013 at Beijing International Airport while attempting to travel to Geneva to attend an NGO event on cooperation with UN human rights mechanisms during the Human Rights Council session. Her whereabouts remained unknown for five weeks, until she resurfaced in custody, charged with “provocation”.

As noted by a number of human rights bodies, China’s system of “Residential Surveillance in a Designated Location”, or RSDL, de facto legalises enforced disappearance, thus exposing individuals to greater risks of torture and ill-treatment, as well as denial of access to medical care.**

During her incarceration, Cao Shunli’s health seriously deteriorated, allegedly due to torture, ill-treatment, and authorities’ failure to provide her access to medical care. She was admitted to hospital in a critical condition on 19 February 2014, and died on 14 March 2014.

“The criminalisation of human rights defenders, such as Cao Shunli, for their interaction with United Nations human rights mechanisms represents an unacceptable form of reprisal by Chinese authorities. It is a source of tremendous regret for us that Cao Shunli’s tireless work in defence of human rights ultimately culminated in her death, and our thoughts are with her family and friends at this time,” the experts said.

Special Procedures mandate holders previously raised Cao Shunli’s case with Chinese authorities in several letters***, and issued two public statements****.


(*)The UN experts: Mr. Michel ForstSpecial Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; Mr. David Kaye, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expressionMr. Dainius Pῡras, Special Rapporteur on the right to healthMr. Nils MelzerSpecial Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishmentMr. Seong-Phil HongChair-Rapporteur, Working Group on Arbitrary DetentionMs. Agnès CallamardSpecial Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executionsMr. Bernard Duhaime, Chair-RapporteurWorking Group on Enforced or Involuntary DisappearancesMs. Dubravka Šimonović, Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences;Mr. Clément Nyaletsossi VouleSpecial Rapporteur on the rights to peaceful assembly and of association. 

The Working Groups and Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity. 

** A letter sent by several special procedures mandate holders on Residential Surveillance in a Designated Location is available here. The response from the government of China is available here. The Working Group on enforced or involuntary disappearances has also made observations on this issue in their annual report available here, paragraph 87.


For more information and media requests please contact: Mr. Jack Pope (+41 22 917 9278 / spdconsultant@ohchr.org ) or write to freedex@ohchr.org. 

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Mr. Jeremy Laurence, UN Human Rights – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / jlaurence@ohchr.org)
Follow news related to the UN’s independent human rights experts on Twitter @UN_SPExperts.

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