Ahead of UN human rights review, China activist goes missing

Cao Shunli's arrest and disappearance is part of China's efforts to conceal its 'very troublesome human rights record,' says Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong.

When the United Nations scrutinizes China’s human rights record next month, Cao Shunli’s voice will not be heard. 

Ms. Cao, who has spent years trying to persuade Beijing to allow ordinary citizens to help draft its UN report in line with international practice, has disappeared since she was arrested at the Beijing airport on Sept. 14. 

She was on her way to Geneva for a human rights training program ahead of China’s submission to a review every four years by the UN Human Rights Council, expected to be a difficult exercise for Chinese diplomats.

Her arrest and disappearance is “part of extensive efforts to conceal China’s very troublesome human rights record,” charges Nicholas Bequelin, a China researcher with Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong. 

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Friday he was “not aware” of Cao’s disappearance, nor of her fate.

China is slated to present its human rights record to fellow UN members in Geneva on Oct. 22, in a procedure known as a Universal Periodic Review (UPR). Its report paints a rosy picture of a continually improving situation, with no mention of the prevailing press censorship, imprisonment of political opponents, harassment of independent lawyers, or any other violations of commonly accepted human rights.

The UN encourages governments to involve their publics in drafting official UPR reports, and most do. The Chinese authorities, however, have “closed the door” on independent voices, complains Liu Xiaofang, a retired librarian who says she has been arrested repeatedly for protesting outside government offices against that policy.

In its UPR submission, China says that “broad public input on the report was sought via the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”

There is no trace of such a consultation on the website, however, and Ms. Liu says if it happened it was “a trick to cheat the world.”

Few of the petitioners seeking redress for human rights abuses, who make up the bulk of those demanding public involvement in the UPR, are familiar with the Internet, Liu points out. And the procedure was not advertised in China.

The government claims to have consulted 22 nongovernmental organizations, but all of them, such as the All China Women's Federation or the China Society for Human Rights Studies, are in fact “GONGO's” – government organized nongovernmental organizations – with links to the government or ruling Communist Party.

Cao is a leader of a group of citizens trying to broaden the sources for China’s UPR report. But when the group wrote to the Foreign Ministry asking to be consulted, and demanding to know who was drafting the report, the ministry responded last November by saying it could not answer without violating China’s state secrets law, in a letter seen by The Christian Science Monitor.

When a request for an administrative review of this reply was turned down, Cao and 66 others sued the Foreign Ministry for access to the drafting process. Last month a Beijing court rejected the case.

“The government does not have ordinary peoples’ interests at heart, and they don’t want that to be clear, so they won’t allow ordinary people to contribute to the report,” says Liu, flicking through a sheaf of court documents as she sits in her cramped and dilapidated one-room apartment.

If independent Chinese voices are completely absent from Beijing’s UPR report they are scarcely more common among the groups contributing their own commentaries and recommendations in Geneva.

Of the 63 “stakeholders” who have submitted opinions to China’s UPR, only five are independent organizations based on the mainland. Of the rest, 39 are based abroad or in Hong Kong, which enjoys greater political freedom than the mainland, and 19 are linked to the Chinese government and offer no real criticism.

The five Chinese submissions are carefully worded and limited to specific issues, such as the treatment of HIV/AIDS sufferers. “To file a report highly critical of the government and to present it from the podium in Geneva would definitely be suicide” for a Chinese non-governmental organization, says Mr. Bequelin.

Chinese diplomats in Geneva go to enormous lengths to try to deflect widespread international criticism of Beijing’s human rights record, and to keep as many of them out of the official record of the UPR proceedings as possible.

Like other countries undergoing scrutiny, China encouraged friendly states to ask anodyne or softball questions at its first UPR hearing in 2009, leaving as little time as possible for more pointed inquiries.

But Chinese diplomats went much further, according to human rights activists familiar with the 2009 hearings. They tried to persuade the United Nations not to allow ethnic Uighur groups, complaining of Chinese government ill-treatment, to hold press conferences on UN property, for example. When that failed, they made it clear to diplomats from other countries that Beijing would regard their attendance at such press conferences a hostile act.

China accepted some broad recommendations by other countries, often involving general statements of intent, but rejected every recommendation concerning freedom of expression, the independence of the judiciary or reducing use of the death penalty, and every specific remedy proposed.

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