Chinese Female Human Rights Defender arrested without charges

by Carlyn Hambuba, Intern, CIVICUS Geneva Office 

The world is still highly patriarchal, where men enjoy certain privileges and recognition unlike women.  Women human rights defenders are not an exception to the patriarchal norm. Women human rights defenders actually face twofold harassment, first as defenders of human rights and secondly by virtue of them being women. Society still expects a woman not to be out-spoken. A woman is supposed to watch in the periphery as men make decisions, disagree, or worse even, mismanage economies or violate basic human rights.

Cao Shunli

Cao Shunli

When a woman breaks the cultural norm and becomes outspoken, she is labelled with a lot of undesirable names. If she dares try to champion the rights of others, she is ostracised.

During the 24th United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) held on 9th -27th September, 2013, my lens for women’s rights was put to test. I sat as an observer looking out at how members of the council debated issues and adopted resolutions. I was also keen to note and record countries that appreciate the role of civil society in the HRC. Equally, I noted with dismay countries that are hostile to civil society participation in the HRC.

Some of the civil society organisations that made statements to the council raised despicable cases that tore my heart.  The case of a Chinese human rights activist Cao Shunli raised by Human Rights Watch reminded me of the stark reality that women human rights defenders are faced with dual harassment, first as rights defenders and secondly as women.

Cao Shunli first disappeared on 14th September after she was stopped from boarding a flight to Switzerland where she was to attend a Human rights training. Her whereabouts were for some weeks not known until in the first week of October when authorities finally disclosed to her colleagues that she is being held at the Beijing First Prison. Although charges for her arrest have not been made public.

China is scheduled to have its next Universal Periodic Review (UPR) examination by the UN Human Rights Council on 22 October 2013. This presents an opportune time to put more pressure on the government of China to state its position on the arrest of Cao Shunli and to at least inform her immediate family members of her charges so that a suitable lawyer is engaged.

Cao Shunli is known for her campaigns for greater civil society involvement in China’s drafting of its reports for the Universal Period Review (UPR) and of its National Human Rights Action Plans since 2008.

While the HRC has committed to dealing with all cases of reprisals on human rights defenders, the case of Cao Shunli amounts to the worst form of reprisal that the HRC may have to deal with, so that in future, no other human rights defender will be barred by their government like Cao Shunli, to engage the Human Rights council or participate in any Human rights training.

Let us continue speaking for Cao Shunli, today it is she, tomorrow it may be you if you don’t speak out for her. Free Cao Shunli is my humble plea to the government of China.

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