Despite knowing the huge risks human rights defenders face in their work, the news still came as a shock to our global community. On 14 March, Cao Shunli, a prominent human rights lawyer, died in hospital after being detained by the Chinese authorities for several months. She was arrested while travelling to participate in a training session on the UN human rights system set up by the International Service for Human Rights. Cao’s supposed “crime” was having campaigned for greater civil society participation in the UN Human Rights Council’s review of China’s human rights record.
Civil society has always played a crucial role at the UN, from those present at the Organization’s founding conference in San Francisco to the 10,000 NGO representatives at Rio+20 in 2012. Human rights defenders have made an exceptional contribution, shaping the international system of protection we recognise today, exposing state misconduct and insisting on accountability.
In recent years, human rights defenders have used the UN system to shine spotlights on grave situations in Syria, Belarus, Iran, Eritrea, Sri Lanka and North Korea, to name just a few, and have worked diligently to promote the universality of human rights in all UN fora, such as by defending women’s rights against regressive forces.
Human rights defenders who engage with the UN face serious challenges. They and their families often endure intimidation, harassment, defamation, arrest, fabricated charges, loss of employment, forced relocation, and physical attacks, including torture and killings. They also encounter numerous laws and regulations that criminalise and restrict their work.
Cao Shunli paid the ultimate price for her work and beliefs, and her death represents one of the most egregious cases of reprisals being taken against human rights defenders cooperating with the UN. Scores of other examples of alleged reprisals are recorded in communications to UN experts and in an annual report of the UN Secretary-General, some of which have even been committed on UN premises. Many more cases, however, go unreported.
Notwithstanding the growing recognition of the seriousness of these reprisals, the response of the international community often remains inadequate. Member states have yet to investigate many of the known cases. The General Assembly is in deadlock over a resolution requesting that the Secretary-General appoint a high-level, anti-reprisals focal point. And too frequently, members of the UN Committee on NGOs, the body that regulates civil society accreditation to and participation at the UN, continue to hinder and harass numerous human rights defenders by arbitrarily and discriminately blocking access.
Despite certain states’ attempts to quell the growing influence and presence of human rights defenders, civil society in countries all over the world continues to promote and protect human rights for all. Indeed, the participation of civil society organisations is growing, both in terms of those inputting into the Human Rights Council’s review of states’ human rights records, and the number of human rights organisations applying for consultative status via the Committee on NGOs, despite the many barriers to entry.
Reprisals against human rights defenders are not only incompatible with the very rights these individuals are seeking to defend, but they also undermine the authority, credibility and independence of the UN system itself. It is time for the international community to stop equivocating and take concrete steps to protect the civil society activists who form the backbone of the UN system.
Among other measures, member states must appoint a UN focal point who can hold perpetrators to account for attacks against human rights defenders and end discriminatory procedures in UN accreditation processes.
The international community must enhance these protections or risk damaging a human rights system that has been carefully constructed over more than 60 years, which will, one hopes, last for many more.
Michelle Evans is the New York Manager and Advocacy Coordinator of the International Service for Human Rights, which supports human rights defenders and takes part in coalitions aimed at strengthening human rights systems.
Photo: A still from a Human Rights Council webcast shows NGOs observing a minute’s silence for Cao Shunli © International Service for Human Rights.