GENEVA (14 March 2024) – A decade after the death in custody of human rights defender Cao Shunli, UN experts* today condemned the continued failure of Chinese authorities to investigate the circumstances surrounding her death and bring those responsible to justice.

“We regret that no action appears to have been taken over the last five years, since the last call for an independent, impartial and comprehensive investigation into Ms. Shunli’s death,” the UN experts said.

Cao Shunli was arrested on 14 September 2013 at Beijing International Airport. Her whereabouts were unknown for five weeks before she reappeared in custody, charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”. Shunli was kept in detention despite a serious deterioration in her health, allegedly due to torture, ill-treatment and failure by authorities to provide timely and adequate access to medical care. She was hospitalised on 19 February 2014, where she died on 14 March 2014.

Cao Shunli was part of a group of human rights defenders who, from December 2008, advocated for and requested to participate in the preparation of China’s national report for its Universal Periodic Reviews (UPR) in 2009 and 2013.

“Cao Shunli was detained in 2013 while attempting to fly to Geneva to participate in an NGO event on cooperation with human rights mechanisms during a session of the Human Rights Council,” the experts said. “Cao Shunli’s case was included in the Secretary-General’s subsequent reports on reprisals for cooperation with the UN in the field of human rights and remains a priority for our mandates.”

The experts expressed concern that the environment for human rights defenders in China had deteriorated significantly in the 10 years since Cao Shunli’s death. China was mentioned in 12 out of 14 UN Secretary-General’s reports on reprisals for cooperation with the UN, with a high number of reprisals cases.

“Rather than using Cao Shunli’s death as a wake-up call and a moment to reform engagement with civil society, Chinese authorities have regrettably intensified their persecution of human rights defenders and others who seek to work with the UN in the field of human rights” the experts said.

They noted that the participation of human rights defenders and civil society from China in UN human rights mechanisms and bodies has dropped to a record low.

“We again urge Chinese authorities to fully and fairly investigate the circumstances that led to Cao Shunli’s death and hold those responsible to account. Failure to properly investigate a potentially unlawful death may amount to a violation of the right to life,” the experts said. “We also call on authorities to freely allow any of its citizens to engage safely with the UN, as provided for in the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.”

The experts previously raised Cao Shunli’s case with Chinese authorities in several letters and issued three public statements.

*The experts: Priya Gopalan (Chair-Rapporteur), Matthew Gillett (Vice-Chair on Communications), Miriam Estrada-CastilloMumba Malila, Working Group on Arbitrary DetentionAua Baldé (Chair-Rapporteur), Gabriella Citroni (Vice-Chair), Angkhana Neelapaijit, Grażyna Baranowska, and Ana Lorena Delgadillo Pérez, Working Group on enforced or involuntary disappearances; Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders Tlaleng MofokengSpecial Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health; Clément Nyaletsossi Voule Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association; Irene KhanSpecial Rapporteur on freedom of expression and opinion; Morris Tidball-Binz, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions

Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups 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. Special Procedures mandate-holders are independent human rights experts appointed by the Human Rights Council to address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. They are not UN staff and are independent from any government or organisation. They serve in their individual capacity and do not receive a salary for their work.

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