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The death of Cao Shunli

China doesn’t like criticism. In September 2013 a Chinese Human Rights lawyer, Cao Shunli, was arrested when trying to fly to Geneva to attend China’s last periodic review by the UN Human Rights Council. Her specialisation was extrajudicial detention. She was never free again. Six months later she was brought from prison to hospital where she died, still under guard.

Last month China’s turn for periodic review of its human rights commitments came up again. This time it attempted to block not only the delegates but the whole proceedings, in a Kafkaesque series of manoeuvres that convinced nobody.

On March 7th Yu Juanhua, China’s permanent representative at the UN, wrote a letter to his fellow Ambassadors. It had come to his attention that a ‘side-meeting’ was taking place to discuss the detention of Uighurs in Xinjiang. Blind to the irony that the purpose of the periodic review is looking at what goes on inside countries, he declared that this ‘aims at interfering China’s domestic affairs’ (sic). He blatantly warned the Ambassadors not to attend it ‘in the interest of our bilateral relations.’

Meanwhile China successfully persuaded member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, most of whom are either in debt to China, heavily reliant on it for trade, or both, to avoid the side-meeting and instead commend China’s treatment of Muslims. They put up photos outside UN meeting rooms depicting happy Uighurs, even as they denounced one Uighur panelist, ominously mentioning the whereabouts of his family.

This didn’t stop the non-Muslim countries of the UN shouting in extraordinary unison that they wanted answers on and access to Xinjiang. Ireland, the UK, the US, Belgium, Canada, Norway, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Australia, Netherlands and Switzerland were particularly specific. In contrast Nigeria, Syria, Belarus, Iraq, and Egypt urged stronger antiterrorism measures, and Saudi Arabia hilariously urged China to ‘continue to conduct friendly exchanges in the religious field with other provinces.’

China claimed to have made ‘remarkable progress’ in human rights, but it refused to sign up to human rights instruments on torture and the use of the death penalty, claiming these were internal matters and people must complain to the State if it abused them. They provided no credible response on Xinjiang, insisting the ‘vocational skills education and training institutions’ were focused on study of legal knowledge, vocational and language skills and ‘deradicalisation.’ Chillingly they added that this ‘had produced the expected results.’  To requests to inspect it replied that it was happy to facilitate visits ‘by diplomats, Chinese and foreign journalists, and tourists who make the visits in accordance with the Chinese law.’ The wording reminded Dr Grim of the Red cross inspections of Theresienstadt.

Their response finished, ‘China would never accept the practice of using human rights as an excuse to interfere in its internal affairs and undermine its sovereignty and territorial integrity. China would stay firmly committed to the path of development suited to its national conditions.’

The UN, utterly unconvinced, renewed their call for an investigation into Cao Shunli’s death. Don’t hold your breath.

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