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China Deals Another Blow to the International Human Rights Framework at its UN Universal Periodic Review

Andrea Worden, November 25, 2018


UPR session, Nov 2018, Chine

China Review — 31st Session of Universal Periodic Review, Nov. 6, 2018, Geneva.


Over the past several years, the Chinese government has steadily been promoting its own version of human rights –– “human rights with Chinese characteristics”–– at the UN, and maneuvering to insert language trumpeted by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), with Xi Jinping as its core wordsmith, into various UN resolutions, with an eye toward assuming a leadership role in global human rights governance. China’s third Universal Periodic Review (UPR) by the Human Rights Council (HRC) on November 6, 2018 provided a high-level global forum for the government to announce its newly formulated five-pronged “human rights development path with Chinese characteristics.” In a press conference following the review, Assistant Foreign Minister Zhang Jun claimed that more than 120 countries supported China’s path during the review, and that China’s formulation was “completely correct.” In prioritizing “the right to development” as the fundamental human right and implicitly discarding the fundamental principle of the universality, interdependence, and indivisibility of all human rights, China’s “path” poses a serious threat to the international human rights system.

Although the key components of the PRC’s human rights path are not new, they have been repackaged into a tidy framework, which China confidently proclaimed at its 2018 UPR (@1:25 and 6:09). Earlier, at its 2013 UPR, the PRC stated in its national report that it was “working to explore paths for human rights development.” By 2018, China had discovered the path, described by Zhang Jun as “national conditions-based, people-centered, development-oriented, rule of law-guided and openness-driven.”  This article takes a look at some of China’s moves to promote its “development-trumps-all” human rights narrative and agenda, weaken the UPR mechanism (and, in the process, the credibility of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)), and further its efforts to gut the international human rights framework as we know it.

The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) Mechanism   

The UPR is a key mechanism of the Human Rights Council (HRC); indeed, it was intended to make the HRC, established in 2006, more robust and equitable than the body it replaced, the UN Human Rights Commission. In this intergovernmental, State-driven mechanism, all 193 UN Member states are reviewed every four and a half years. The review is conducted on the basis of three documents: the national report of the State being reviewed, and two documents prepared by OHCHR–– the compilation of UN information on the State under review, and the summary of stakeholders’ information, which includes information submitted by NGOs.

Three and a half hours is allocated for the review.  The UN Member State under review is allotted a total of 70 minutes, which it uses for opening and final remarks, and comments and responses during the interactive dialogue. The remaining 2 hours and 20 minutes is apportioned equally among the countries that sign up in advance to speak at the review. In China’s 2018 UPR, each State that registered to speak was given 45 seconds to make their statements; in 2013, each country had 50 seconds. The Chinese government uses its influence to stack the roster with its friends (e.g. aid recipients, like-minded dictatorships, BRI partners, etc.) and as a result, countries poised to offer remarks critical of the PRC’s human rights record and make substantive human rights-based recommendations have less time to do so.


UPR session, Nov 2018


The review is intended to evaluate the State under review’s progress toward achieving and implementing recommendations it accepted during its previous review; fulfillment of the State’s human rights obligations and commitments; and the country’s overall human rights situation. During the interactive dialogue portion of China’s 2018 UPR, 150 delegations made statements, and offered 346 recommendations (@1:30). The Chinese government will provide its position on the recommendations by the 40th session of the Human Rights Council in March 2019. Regarding which recommendations the PRC is likely to accept, and those it’s likely to reject, the head of the UPR delegation, Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng, suggested the answer during his final remarks. He said “an overwhelming number of countries have fully recognized China’s efforts and achievements in promoting and protecting human rights over the last five years,” and that the Chinese delegation sincerely appreciated their “many constructive comments and recommendations.” @3:07:22) As for certain other countries, Vice Minister Le said, “We will not accept the politically driven accusations from a few countries that are fraught with biases, and in total disregard of facts; even less will we entertain attempts to use human rights as an excuse to interfere in China’s internal affairs or undermine its sovereignty and territorial integrity.” (@3:08:14)

China Finds its Human Rights Path for the New Era

In the PRC’s National Report submitted for its 2013 UPR (2013 Report), the section that lays out the government’s human rights theory is titled, “The concept and theoretical system of human rights under socialism with Chinese characteristics.” There is no mention of “human rights with Chinese characteristics.” As noted above, the government stated at that time it was “working to explore paths for human rights development.” (para. 5.) The 2013 Report further states that China:

“respects the principle of universality of human rights and is of the view that all countries have a duty to take measures, commensurate with their national conditions, continuously to promote and protect human rights in accordance with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and the basic spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the relevant international human rights instruments.” (para. 4)

By the time of its 2018 UPR, the PRC had finished its exploration and discovered a “distinctively Chinese” path (@6:35), a path that abandons international human rights norms. The relevant section of the 2018 Report is titled, “The concept and theoretical system of human rights with Chinese characteristics.” There is no mention of the principle of universality of human rights; indeed, the only mention of “universal” is in the negative: “There is no universal road for the development of human rights in the world.” (para. 4) Nor is there a mention the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), or “relevant international human rights instruments.” Australia noted the change from 2013 in an advance question to China, and asked:

“Does China still accept the principle of universal human rights, and if not, can China explain how its conception of human rights fits into the international human rights regime built on the concept of universality? Can China explain how “human rights with Chinese characteristics” differs from universal human rights, and if it does not, why it wishes to introduce this distinction?” (Advance Questions, Addendum 3)

This is clearly a human rights path grounded in Xi Jinping’s New Era. Not only are fundamental norms of the universality and interdependence of human rights jettisoned, the Chinese government has also dispensed with any mention of theories articulated by Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao. While the 2013 Report contains references to Hu’s “scientific outlook on development” and “harmonious society,” they are absent from the 2018 Report. The Report states:

“[T]he cause of human rights must be promoted on the basis of national conditions and the needs of the people of that country, and cannot be defined on the basis of a single authority. Guided by Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, China attaches great importance to the promotion and protection of human rights, ever acting as an advocate, practitioner and promoter of the cause of protecting human rights and always following the road of developing human rights with Chinese characteristics.” [2018 Report, Para. 4, emphasis added]

The translated phrase “on the basis of a single authority” is a curious rendering of the classical phrase 定于一尊 (dingyuyizun). The meaning is more along the lines of “no one (path of human rights development) should be regarded as the only choice,” or superior to all other choices.

In its 2018 Report, the Chinese government argues, in effect, that the international human rights framework is just one choice among others, and that it should not be taken as the highest authority. What, then, is the highest authority, or “the right system”? For China’s human rights development, there is only one “correct path”–– and it lies with Xi Jinping. The report describes the five-pronged path as the “road of developing human rights with Chinese characteristics” ­­–– a road that “takes national conditions as the foundation”; “takes the people as the centre”; “takes development as the priority”; “takes the rule of law as the criterion”; and “takes openness as the motivator.” (paras. 5-10.)

The PRC’s “Development First” Agenda Gains Further Ground in the HRC

Development, and the right to development, were front and center during the interactive dialogue portion of the UPR, punctuated by strong concerns raised by a smaller number of States about the mass detention of Muslim minorities in “vocational training centers” in Xinjiang, and a wide range of other human rights abuses in China.

As it’s done in the past, the Chinese government seemingly rounded up its friends and beneficiaries to engage in what could be taken as an example of offline “flooding”: the UPR, whose purpose is to review the human rights obligations and actual human rights on the ground of the State under review, was inundated by comments and recommendations from countries praising China’s development, requesting China share best practices, expressing gratitude for aid, and asking for more.  Many developing countries and members of the so-called Like-Minded Group (including, e.g., Russia, Syria, China, Cuba, Venezuela, etc.), which are decidedly not human rights-friendly, offered recommendations to China such as the following:

Namibia: “Continue sharing experiences and best practices in implementing people’s right to development.” (Draft Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review: China (11/8/18); A/HRC/WG.6/31/L.3, para. 6.128)

Pakistan: “Continue to promote discussions in the Human Rights Council on the role of development in promoting and protecting human rights” (para. 6.33); “Continue to promote the Belt and Road Initiative to help other developing countries in their development endeavours” (para. 6.45).

And in an advance question to China before the review, Pakistan asked: “China has made tremendous achievements in implementing the right to development. Could China share relevant experience?”  (Advance Questions to China First Batch –Rev)

Lao People’s Democratic Republic: “Continue to communicate with other developing countries on the experience of the state governance, including promoting and protecting human rights” (para. 6.52).

Nigeria: “Sustain its efforts in the global fight against terrorism and extremism” (para. 6.145).

Venezuela: “Continue to forge a new type of international relations featuring mutual respect, fairness, justice, and win-win cooperation and building a community with a shared future for human beings” (para. 6.36).

It’s worth noting that Venezuela didn’t quite get the New Era lexicon right during the interactive dialogue, and its recommendation was amended in an early version of the draft report for political correctness. Venezuela did not utter the CCP’s “win-win” slogan during its oral statement, and it described the future as a “shared future for human beings,” neglecting the “building” of “a community.”  The Spanish-to-English interpreter used “forms” instead of “type” (as in “new type of international relations”) and “equity” instead of “fairness.” These “mistakes” were subsequently fixed, in what seems to be another example of PRC influence and discourse management at the UN.


UPR session, Nov 2018, Suisse

You may listen to a country’s recommendations for China by selecting the country from menu on the right.


Money Matters and OHCHR  

In its 2018 Report, the PRC notes that it donated $100,000 to the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Development mandate, a new special procedure created in September 2016 (para. 76). At first glance, it’s puzzling that this mandate was created in the first place when a Working Group on the Right to Development already exists, but it turns out to have been another move by the PRC to promote development within the HRC, and occupy more “space” and resources focused on the right to development. Not surprisingly, Venezuela introduced the resolution creating the mandate on behalf of China and the Non-Aligned Movement, which was adopted by a vote of 34-2, with 11 abstentions. France and the UK voted against the resolution. The first (and current) special rapporteur, Mr. Saad Alfarargi of Egypt, participated in the first South-South Human Rights Forum held in Beijing in December 2017, by invitation from the Chinese government. During the UPR, Vice Minister Le said that the PRC will invite the Chair of the Working Group on the Right to Development to visit China (@10:24).

At the 2013 UPR, the PRC announced a dramatic increase in its funding for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Special Envoy of the MFA, Wu Hailong, said that China would increase its annual donation to OHCHR from $50,000 to $800,000 for the next four years (@17:30). During the 2018 review, Vice Minister Le announced that China would (again) donate $800,000 annually to the OHCHR for the next five years (@10:20).  The PRC stated in the 2018 Report that it “maintains constructive contacts with [OHCHR], encourages them to perform their duties objectively and impartially, and attaches importance to the concerns of developing countries” (para. 76).

The Chinese government clearly has influence at OHCHR, which it uses to shield its human rights record from scrutiny, mute criticism, and control access to information it would rather keep hidden. The extent of the PRC’s influence, and the different tactics and leverage it uses to exert it, awaits an investigative journalist to thoroughly unravel, but in its groundbreaking report on China’s interference in UN human rights mechanisms, Human Rights Watch provides several examples of Chinese pressure on the OHCHR and special procedures, quoting one UN official as saying:  “China keeps bullying us, saying, ‘Don’t do that,’ ‘Don’t do this,’ or ‘We urge you not to do this.’”

One of the main functions of OHCHR is to provide support for the work of the HRC, including the UPR, and, as mentioned earlier, it is responsible for drafting the compilation of UN information, and the summary of stakeholders’ information. In the run-up to the 2018 UPR, OHCHR was involved in machinations that point to PRC interference in the Office’s work. The details of the disappearing and reappearing NGO submissions on the OHCHR website, inputs from groups the Chinese government views as particularly “troublesome,” and exclusion of their information from the stakeholders’ summary prepared by OHCHR, are explained in a joint statement signed by concerned NGOs, which include, among others, the Uyghur Human Rights Project, World Uyghur Congress, Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, Demosistō, and the International Service for Human Rights. The NGOs stated that despite the OHCHR’s belated fix of most of the issues (mere days before the review), they “remain very concerned that the removal of these reports gives further credence to well-documented NGO concerns of China’s growing influence within the UN human rights system, and the deliberate silencing of critical voices.”

After China’s success in the HRC in June 2017 with its resolution titled, “The contribution of development to the enjoyment of all human rights,” I wrote, “What this means, in short, is that China will continue to promote, and attempt to expand, the importance of the right to development and economic rights, while at the same time endeavoring to curtail and weaken the enforcement of civil and political rights.” And so it has. During the UPR, the Chinese government touted its self-described “correct” human rights path, and by presenting a depraved defense of its “vocational training centers” in Xinjiang demonstrated that it was wholly unconcerned with civil and political rights, and the truth. Despite strong, rights-based recommendations from the human rights-friendly countries that participated in the review, China was nonetheless able to use the global stage of the UPR to further advance its “development trumps all” agenda at the expense of the established international human rights framework.



Andrea Worden croppedAndrea Worden is a human rights activist, lawyer, and writer. She has worked on human rights and rule of law issues involving China throughout much of her career, and previously held positions as the Acting Executive Director of Asia Catalyst, Advocacy Director with the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), and Senior Counsel at the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC). Her essays and articles on human rights issues in China have appeared in such publications as the The Pro-Democracy Protests in China: Reports from the Provinces, Yale-China Review, Georgetown Journal of International Law, South China Morning Post, and China Rights Forum, among others.

Follow her on Twitter @tingdc



Andrea Worden’s UN human rights series on China Change:

China Pushes ‘Human Rights With Chinese Characteristics’ at the UN, Andrea Worden, October 9, 2017.

As the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders Turns 20, China Wages a Multi-Pronged Attack on Rights Defenders, Andrea Worden, March 14, 2018.

With Its Latest Human Rights Council Resolution, China Continues Its Assault on the UN Human Rights Framework, Andrea Worden, April 9, 2018.

China Fails in its Gambit to Use the UN NGO Committee to Silence the Society for Threatened Peoples and Uyghur Activist Dolkun Isa, July 10, 2018.



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As the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders Turns 20, China Wages a Multi-Pronged Attack on Rights Defenders

Andrea Worden, March 14, 2018


“Everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, to promote and to strive for the protection and realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

–– UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders


UN Declaration on HRDs


The Chinese government attacks human rights defenders (HRDs) – those who peacefully defend and promote human rights – on a range of fronts. First, and most critically, are the government’s attacks on HRDs at home. The relentless crackdown on human rights defenders has gone from bad to worse under Xi Jinping, and we can expect the downward trend to accelerate now that Xi is no longer constrained by term limits. While the resilience of China’s beleaguered HRDs is remarkable, their numbers are shrinking; a few prominent examples of HRDs detained, disappeared, or dead at the hands of the state include: Ilham Tohti, Liu Xiaobo, Tashi Wangchuk, Wang Quanzhang, Li Baiguang, and Cao Shunli.

Second, China harasses, obstructs, and jails HRDs who attempt to engage with the UN human rights mechanisms. A recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) report details the various ways the Chinese government interferes with civil society engagement at the UN, from restrictions on travel and detention (to prevent activists, as in the case of Cao Shunli, from traveling to Geneva), to reprisals and threats against family members of HRDs.

Third, and the focus of this article, China challenges the concept and even the term “human rights defenders” at the UN. With the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders (Declaration) celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, and China undergoing its third Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in November, this is an important moment to press China on its utter lack of compliance with the Declaration.

I recently wrote at China Change about China’s aggressive promotion of “human rights with Chinese characteristics” at the Human Rights Council (HRC) to undermine settled international human rights norms and push its vision for “global human rights governance.” This article will look at China’s recent moves in its long-term effort to dilute the concept and “harmonize” the term “human rights defenders,” while at the same time appearing to be a “responsible actor” on human rights at the UN. This two-fold strategy was on display in November 2017, when the Third Committee of the General Assembly adopted by consensus a resolution marking the 20th anniversary of the Declaration, which China joined, while it sought at the same time to weaken the text and the impact of the resolution.

The Declaration on Human Rights Defenders in Brief

The term “human rights defender,” surprisingly, does not appear in the text of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders (the Declaration’s sobriquet), nor in its unwieldy official title: “Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individual, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.” Thus, not surprisingly, the Declaration lacks a precise definition of the term “human rights defender.” Article 1 of the Declaration states simply: “Everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, to promote and to strive for the protection and realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms…” Those who exercise this right (through peaceful, nonviolent means) are human rights defenders; human rights defenders are identified first and foremost by what they do.

The Declaration highlights those rights that HRDs (and others) already have pursuant to international human rights law –– such as those set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and other human rights instruments –– which are fundamental for the defense of human rights. These rights include, among others, the rights to peaceful assembly and association, freedom of expression and opinion, free flow of information, the right to participate in public affairs, the right to due process and an effective remedy for violations of human rights defenders’ rights, and the right to solicit and receive funds for rights defense work. (See inter alia, arts. 5-9, 12,13; and discussion in Chinese here.)

States have various duties and responsibilities under the Declaration, including “to protect, promote and implement all human rights and fundamental freedoms” and to create a safe and enabling legal and administrative environment for the effective guarantee and enjoyment “of all those rights and freedoms in practice.” (Art. 2.)

China’s Role in the Drafting of the Declaration

The drafting of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders took 14 years and was described by Amnesty International as “tortuous” in a 1995 account. The glaring absence of the term “human rights defenders” from the Declaration’s title and text –– despite the usage of the term during negotiations of the text –– speaks to the contentiousness of the process that brought the Declaration into being.

In 1985, the UN Commission on Human Rights (predecessor to the Human Rights Council), created a working group to draft the Declaration. At first, the former Soviet Union and Eastern bloc countries were primarily responsible for moves that hindered progress on the draft text; however, in the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and other geopolitical shifts, the States most responsible for obstruction and delay on the draft were Cuba, China, and Syria, with Mexico and Iran playing supporting antagonistic roles.

In 1994, according to Amnesty’s account, China and Cuba argued to remove from the draft an article relating to the right to solicit and obtain resources for the work of HRDs.  In 1995, China and Cuba also pushed for inclusion of wording that would have limited defenders to the right to peacefully oppose only violations of their own rights, rather than human rights abuses suffered by others. In addition, China supported a proposal offered by Cuba that would have created numerous limitations on the work of HRDs, including restricting the work of HRDs to its “humanitarian essence.” Amnesty concluded at the time that the “root problem is that a small group of governments seem determined to prevent the creation of a useful instrument for the defence of human rights.”

The fractious working group eventually reached agreement on a final text, and on December 9, 1998, the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders by consensus ( i.e., without a vote).  The adoption was timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by the General Assembly (December 10, 1948). Although the Declaration on HRDs is not legally binding, its adoption by consensus –– despite the struggle it took to reach an agreed text –– is a sign of political will among UN Member States for the principles, language, and action items contained in the Declaration.

China Pushes Back Against Growing Momentum for Protection of HRDs

During the past 20 years, however, countries have differed greatly in the extent to which they have embraced, or opposed, the Declaration and the changes it helped catalyze. China has continuously undermined protection for human rights defenders at the UN, and persistently wages war on the term, regardless of where it may show up (e.g., HRC resolutions in June 2016 on the elimination of discrimination against women and violence against women). As HRW notes in its recent report, The Costs of International Advocacy, during the June 2016 session, a Chinese diplomat stated that the HRC “should not promote such a controversial concept.”

As human rights defenders have become recognized as a vital part of the international human rights mechanisms, and the UN creates more space for civil society, China and other States (e.g., China’s friends in the so-called Like-Minded Group) have intensified their efforts to silence them. A UN official quoted by HRW said: “The whole UN machinery tries to make space for civil society while the PRC machinery works the other way, trying to shrink the space for NGOs.”

The tactics used by China and other authoritarian regimes to silence those who try to engage with the UN human rights mechanisms has led to a greater focus on the issue of reprisals at the Human Rights Council and in the UN system as a whole. In September 2017, China abstained from an HRC resolution on cooperation with the UN human rights mechanisms and reprisals. Earlier, China challenged the treaty body chairs’ adoption of the San Jose Guidelines, measures aimed to protect civil society actors from reprisals for their efforts to engage with the treaty bodies.

China’s Efforts to Undermine HRDs in the General Assembly’s Third Committee in 2017

In October 2017, during the interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders on his annual report in the General Assembly’s (GA) Third Committee –– a key component of the UN human rights infrastructure  –– a Chinese diplomat delivered a statement that summarizes some of the key arguments China marshals against HRDs at the UN (English) (Chinese). Ms. Qu Jiehao stated:

“China is of the view that as there is no clear and universal definition worked out through intergovernmental negotiation on “human rights defenders”, countries have different views on who can be defined as ‘human rights defenders.’ All people should enjoy the same human rights and fundamental freedoms on an equal basis. Human rights defenders should not be regarded as a special group to be granted special rights and status. Those who have violated law or engaged in criminal activities in the name of ‘human rights defenders’ to undermine the interests of the majority of people or public order should be brought to justice according to law.”

China and other countries that are not friendly toward HRDs use the absence of a definition of the term “human rights defenders” in the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders to argue that the term and concept “human rights defenders” is ambiguous and controversial–– notwithstanding the robust and expanding UN (not to mention regional and national) infrastructure on human rights defenders.

Moreover, China speciously argues that the Declaration on HRDs creates “special rights” for HRDs. The text of the Declaration is clear, however, that the rights highlighted therein are contained in the UDHR and other core human rights instruments, and are specifically emphasized because they are critically important to the defense of human rights. The Chinese government also invokes its domestic laws (e.g., those that in practice are used to criminalize peaceful speech and assembly) to argue that HRDs are engaged in “illegal conduct,” and thus are not only undeserving of protection, but also criminally liable. China also invokes “non-interference in internal affairs” on this issue, as it does with so many issues at the UN.

A resolution on human rights defenders, with different themes and emphases, is introduced biennially, in alternating years, in the GA’s Third Committee in New York and the Human Rights Council in Geneva. Norway takes the lead on the HRD resolutions, as it did in November 2017 in the Third Committee, and strives to achieve a consensus text to signal to HRDs around the globe that the UN unanimously supports them.

On November 20, Ambassador May-Elin Stener, the Deputy Permanent Representative for Norway to the UN, introduced the draft resolution on human rights defenders (A/C.3/72/L.50/Rev.1) in the 51st meeting of the Third Committee of the GA’s 72nd session (UN Web TV @ 14:00). The resolution calls for an end to violence and reprisals against HRDs and the active promotion of the Declaration and its implementation during 2018. The resolution also provides for a high-level plenary meeting of the General Assembly during its 73rd session in 2018 on the promotion of the Declaration, and requests the Secretary-General to “undertake a comprehensive assessment and analysis of progress, achievements and challenges” on how the UN mechanisms can better assist States in “strengthening the role and security of human rights defenders.”

After Ambassador Stener presented oral revisions to the draft resolution (beginning @ 17:44) that reflected further negotiations, she invited the Committee to adopt the resolution by consensus, as orally revised, so “the Third Committee can send a clear message of unanimous support of human rights defenders in all parts of the world.”

Estonia, speaking for the EU (beginning @ 31:05), expressed a certain degree of dissatisfaction with the text. Estonia stated that the EU welcomed “the aim of this resolution” to use the 20th anniversary of the Declaration “in a manner that is supportive of the work of the human rights defenders around the world.” But he expressed the EU’s concern that there were “a number of areas” that “could have benefitted from a strengthening of the text, including more accurate references to existing official UN documents and the removal of unnecessary qualifiers.” But in the interests of achieving consensus, the EU agreed to the final text.

Although China also joined the consensus on the adoption of the resolution, and did not call for a vote, as it had in 2015, it nevertheless issued a statement challenging certain aspects of the resolution.

The Chinese delegate (beginning @ 33:10) welcomed the tabling of the resolution and said that it joined the consensus after oral amendments. In particular, the delegate expressed China’s appreciation for Norway accepting its proposals on a few specific paragraphs, including preambular (i.e., introductory) paragraph 7 (discussed below). He then laid out China’s positions and reservations.

With respect to preambular paragraph (PP) 9, which describes rights defenders’ work as “positive, important, and legitimate,” China stated:

“Preambular paragraph 9 contains preconceived notions that the roles and activities of human rights defenders are legitimate. China reiterates that … human rights defenders must carry out their activities in a peaceful and lawful way. Human rights defenders, if acting in violation of domestic law, shall be equally sanctioned by the law as others. No state shall employ the issue of human rights defenders as a tool to interfere in other countries’ internal affairs.”

China also expressed concern about operative (i.e., action-oriented) paragraph (OP) 7, which condemns the criminalization of, and intimidation and violence against human rights defenders for reporting and seeking information on human rights abuses, and OP 8, which urges States to protect the right of everyone to interact with international human rights bodies. China stated that these two paragraphs “go beyond the scope of the application of the Declaration.”

With respect to the paragraph calling for a high-level meeting of the GA in its next session (OP 14), the Chinese delegate stated, “the paragraph is ambiguous about the nature of the meeting.” He continued: “China wishes to highlight that this meeting shall be of a commemorative nature and its purpose is to promote the declaration. China is not in favor of the adoption of an outcome document in this meeting.”

The Chinese delegate noted that China had called for a vote on the human rights defenders’ resolution two years earlier in 2015 but this year (2017) it joined the consensus, because it believed that the current text had improved compared with the 2015 resolution. The call for a vote in 2015 by China and Russia was unprecedented; at the time, Amnesty expressed concern about “actions taken by some Member States to undermine the crucial principles of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders adopted in 1998.”

With respect to the 2017 resolution, China’s change to PP 7 is potentially significant ––a footnote was added to the term “human rights defenders.” The footnote states: “The term human rights defenders applies consistent with the purposes, principles and provisions of the Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individual, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.” This unnecessary addition, which China took responsibility for, is perplexing. It may be an opening salvo in a bid to undermine the common understanding of the work of HRDs and their rights, and the States’ responsibility to protect them. The fact that the representative of the Russian Federation (beginning @ 37:30) expressed support for the footnote is cause for concern. The delegate stated that Russia was “pleased to see” in the orally amended document “specifications regarding the term human rights defenders.”

Moreover, Switzerland expressed concern about China’s addition of the footnote (beginning @ 47:45), stating: “we regret the addition of a footnote under PP 7, which seeks to define the term human rights in the resolution. Switzerland believes that this footnote is applicable only in the context of this resolution on the 20th anniversary of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, and we reserve our position for the future.”

Different iterations of the draft resolution also reflect a struggle over its title. The title of the first version of the resolution tabled in late October 2017 (A/C.3/72/L.50) included a parenthetical with the shorthand name for the Declaration’s cumbersome title: “Twentieth anniversary and promotion of the Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (commonly referred to as the Declaration on human rights defenders).” [Emphasis added.] The parenthetical didn’t last long. In the next version of the negotiated text (A/C.3/72/L.50. Rev.1), the “commonly referred to as” language was moved to a footnote, and in the final version of the resolution that was adopted by the Third Committee, the footnote had disappeared, and the “commonly referred to as” language resurfaced in an easy-to-miss spot at the end of the third preambular paragraph.

In late December 2017, the GA adopted by consensus the Third Committee’s final draft resolution on the 20th anniversary of the Declaration. Now that we are well into 2018, it’s incumbent upon all stakeholders to proactively promote the Declaration and work towards strengthening its implementation.



*          *          *

What can be done at the UN during the 20th anniversary year of the Declaration? 

There are several significant opportunities for civil society engagement on China and the issue of human rights defenders in 2018.

First, China’s next Universal Periodic Review (UPR) will take place in November 2018. The deadline for NGO submissions is March 29. China’s national report is due in July 2018. Despite the fact that States are obligated to consult with domestic civil society in the process of drafting their National reports, China’s practice, not surprisingly, has been to enlist GONGOs in an effort to appear to “satisfy” this requirement.

Second, as Tess McEvoy of the NGO International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) notes, the resolution marking the 20th anniversary of the Declaration “gives human rights defenders the opportunity to channel analyses and recommendations related to implementation into UN processes, with the ultimate aim of establishing better implementation and procedures.” The high-level meeting of the General Assembly on the situation of human rights defenders will take place sometime during the fall of 2018, and input from HRDs worldwide will be sought in advance for a report to be presented at that meeting.



Andrea Worden croppedAndrea Worden is a human rights activist, lawyer, and writer. She has worked on human rights and rule of law issues involving China throughout much of her career, and previously held positions as the Acting Executive Director of Asia Catalyst, Advocacy Director with the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), and Senior Counsel at the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC). Her essays and articles on human rights issues in China have appeared in such publications as the The Pro-Democracy Protests in China: Reports from the Provinces, Yale-China Review, Georgetown Journal of International Law, South China Morning Post, and China Rights Forum, among others.

Follow her on Twitter @tingdc





Declaration on Human Rights Defenders  (English) (Chinese)

OHCHR, Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders

Website of the current UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of human rights defenders, Mr. Michel Forst

OHCHR Fact Sheet No. 29, Human Rights Defenders: Protecting the Right to Defend Human Rights  (English)  (Chinese)

Janika Spannagel, Declaration on Human Rights Defenders (1998), November 2017

International Service for Human Rights, Third Committee of the UN General Assembly: A Practical Guide for NGOs (2017)

Universal Periodic Review –– A Practical Guide for Civil Society (English) (Chinese)

Sonya Sceats with Shaun Breslin, China and the International Human Rights System (Chatham House, October 2012)

Human Rights Watch, The Costs of International Advocacy (September 2017)

Chinese Human Rights Defenders, Repression & Resilience: Annual Report on Situation of Human Rights Defenders in China (2017)

Andrea Worden, China Pushes ‘Human Rights With Chinese Characteristics’ at the UN






The Life and Death of Cao Shunli (1961 — 2014)

By Yaxue Cao, published: March 18, 2014


Cao Shunli (曹顺利)

Cao Shunli (曹顺利)

Her name in Chinese means “smooth,” but her life, which ended on March 14, 2014, had been anything but smooth.

Exactly six months ago on September 14, 2013, Cao Shunli was disappeared in the Exit & Entry area of Beijing Capital International Airport where she was en route to Geneva to attend human rights training. It wasn’t until late October when her arrest was confirmed.

“Ms. Cao Shunli’s secret abduction was due to her participation in a two-month sit-in action in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that began on June 2013,” a dozen or so rights lawyers wrote to demand that the government publicize Cao Shunli’s condition  after she fell into a coma in Beijing Chaoyang Detention Center and was rushed to an emergency room on February 20.

“The action in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was a rights-protection action which Cao Shunli and 60 other petitioners were left with no choice but to take after having applied to the State Council Information Office requesting to participate in the drafting of the ‘National Human Rights Action Plan’ civic human rights report, and also applying for the information office to disclose relevant governmental information, but receiving no response whatsoever and having judicial avenues blocked off,” the lawyers wrote. “Their actions were entirely for the protection of civil rights enshrined in the third clause of Article 2 and in Article 42 of the PRC Constitution and they were in line with the principle spirit of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which China has signed.”

Two months after China detained Cao Shunli for her cooperation with the UN, China was elected a member of the UN Human Rights Council on November 12 over the opposition of activists on the ground and international human rights organizations.

Despite rapidly deteriorating health (in Chinese), in December, Cao Shunli’s case was sent to the prosecutors for indictment and the recommended charge was switched from “illegal assembly” initially to “picking quarrels to create disturbances.”

Indeed, when it comes to persecuting citizens for disobeying or opposing the regime in any shape or form, picking a charge is just like flipping a switch or changing lanes.

According to New York-based Human Rights in China (HRIC), Cao Shunli had focused her efforts on two specific areas over the last few years: formulating the country’s domestic plans to advance human rights, and reporting the progress to the UN Human Rights Council in advance of its Universal Periodic Reviews (UPR).”

An organization also taking part in the UPRs, HRIC compiled documents Cao Shunli had prepared and submitted to the UN between 2008 and 2013. The group of documents reflects “Cao’s systematic pursuit of her goal using the law and the court system, as well as the international human rights mechanisms, to press for greater transparency and accountability, and the Chinese authorities’ systematic resistance to such participation by invoking, among other reasons, state secrecy.”

In March, 2013, Cao Shunli submitted a report to the 17th session of the UN Human Rights Council Working Group on the UPR through Human Rights Campaign in China (权利运动), a mainland China-based rights organization. It was also the year when China bid to become a member of the UN Human Rights Council again.

In Changsha, a group of activists held vigil for Cao Shunli. "The day will break," the sign reads.

In Changsha, a group of activists held vigil for Cao Shunli. “The day will break,” the sign reads.

On the very day Cao Shunli’s secret detention was made public, the head of the Chinese delegation Wu Hailong (in Chinese) told the UN that, in 2009 when China underwent the first  universal periodic review on human rights, China accepted 42 recommendations made by member states and promised that “when the time comes for China to be reviewed again, the world will see a China that is more prosperous, more democratic, improved in rule of law with a more harmonious society and happier people.” Mr. Wu went on to tell the UN panel that, four years later, all of the 42 recommendations have been, or are being, implemented and China has by and large fulfilled its promises.”

From the way China secretly detained Cao Shunli and subjected her to inhumane treatment that led to her eventual death six months into her detention, one can gauge how much the Chinese government hated her and how it would rather see her die.

From a Law School Graduate to a Petitioner

“Cao Shunli was born in Beijing in 1961 to a worker’s family with four siblings,” Cao Shunli’s brother Cao Yunli told the overseas Chinese website Boxun recently. When she was ten in 1971 during the Cultural Revolution, her family was forcibly deported to her father’s ancestral home in Zhaoyuan, Shangdong (山东招远), because her father’s family was landowners—one of the enemy classes–before Communist rule. Six years later when Mao Zedong died, the Caos were allowed to return to their home in Beijing.

In 1979, she was admitted into Beijing College of Political Science and Law (now China University of Political Science and Law). After graduating, she became a graduate student in the Department of Law at Peking University. Three years later, she was assigned to work at a research center in the Ministry of Labor and Human Resources (now Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security).

During China’s housing reform in 2002, Cao Shunli exposed corruption in housing distribution in her work unit and eventually lost her job as a result of reprisals from her supervisors.

She became a petitioner. As nearly all petitioners in China, she was subjected to all manner of suppression and frequent surveillance and house arrest. More than once, she was given administrative detention. Because of her own experience, her attention turned to China’s human rights conditions, especially the conditions and demands of petitioners.

According to a recent published account (in Chinese) about Cao Shunli’s life, having collected a large number of petitioners’ cases from 2006 to 2008, she thought of a new way to seek solutions: Submit them to the Foreign Ministry to be part of the human rights report China was to submit to the UN and China’s National Human Rights Action Plan.

Cao Shunli and her petitioner friends began to make appeals, and send documents, to the Foreign Ministry as well as the State Council’s Information Office.

In summary, they appealed to the Chinese government, in its preparations for the National Human Rights Action Plan and the UPR State Human Rights Report, to “[include] the participation of non-governmental organizations and representatives from vulnerable groups,” and to [include] in the two documents “descriptions of the rights violations suffered by petitioners and rights defenders over more than a decade” and “the government’s responsibility and concrete measures to solve these problems.”

It didn’t go well.

On February 16, 2009, she organized the “Beijing Rights Defense Walk.” According to the announcement, the purpose for the walk was to demand that “the State Council’s Information Office respond to the application by petitioners and rights defenders for participating in preparing China’s Human Rights Action Plan” and that “Beijing Public Security Bureau Dongcheng branch return the Human Rights Condition Surveys filled and signed by 323 people that the PSB branch illegally confiscated.”

From late 2008 all the way to Cao Shunli’s arrest in September 2013, Cao and her petitioner group would make the same appeals over and over again in writing and through demonstrations, futilely. In the course of five years, she would be put in labor camps twice for a total of 27 months and subjected to numerous arbitrary detentions and disappearances. During the CCP’s 18th Congress in the fall of 2012, they disappeared her using the infamous “black hood” and detained her and many petitioners. Inside the detention center, she told RFI, people were subjected to savage beatings that broke their bones.

Two Stints in Reeducation-through-Labor

In the March 23, 2009, issue of China News Weekly (《中国新闻周刊》), an associate professor of Peking University named Sun Dongdong (孙东东) penned an article (in Chinese) advocating forceful incarceration of people with mental illness in hospitals to ensure social order. By “people with mental illness,” he meant “99% of the chronic petitioners.”

The comment was widely condemned for its absurdity and alleged attempt to justify what the government had been doing: forcefully putting petitioners in mental hospitals. After all, the year before in 2008, professor Sun defended the overall safety of Chinese milk formula in the wake of the melamine-tainted milk formula scandal that victimized more than 300,000 infants.

For days petitioners gathered outside Peking University’s west gate to protest Professor Sun’s comment. On April 10, Cao Shunli was detained while protesting outside Peking University, her alma mater. On April 12, the day before after China announced its National Human Rights Action Plan 2009-2010 (in Chinese), Cao Shunli was sentenced to reeducation-through-labor for 12 months for “picking quarrels to create disturbances” in the police station.

“I was so saddened,” she told RFI last summer. “I thought: you are such a big government, but you do this to one individual. I don’t understand it.”

2009 was also the year when China underwent the UPR on human rights.

During RTL, she refused to obey the rules, and she refused to be treated as a criminal, she told Boxun upon release in April 2010. To punish her, she was denied food for five days and was force-fed. “Nose feeding is to stick a tube into your nose and feed fluid through it,” Cao Shunli told RFI last July. “They said to me: since you don’t obey, you will have to eat from your nose. You cannot eat from your mouth.”

Her friend Zhou Li (@lee91741 ) tweeted the other day:  “I asked Cao Shunli when she was released from RTL that year, ‘Did they torture you?’ She said, ‘I had never been on a hunger strike, but they still force-fed me, from the nose, very painful. But forget about it. We’ll still do what we do.’”

Ten days after Cao Shunli was released in April 2010, she was detained again and sentenced to another 15 months in RTL. According to right lawyer Teng Biao (滕彪), who defended Cao Shunli in her case, a neighborhood police testified that Cao Shunli was a “key person” in the neighborhood, and that the “relevant organ” detected that Cao Shunli and others had bought train tickets to Shanghai and tickets to visit the Shanghai Expo (世博会). To prevent her from going to Shanghai, they obstructed her application for an ID card, forcibly detained her in a warehouse where, to defend herself, she smashed the window glass. All the time the police recorded her on video and used it against her.

Quoting Chinese law and regulations, Teng Biao also argued that Cao Shunli, suffering from multiple illnesses, should not be put in a labor camp to begin with, and that the Beijing RTL Commission’s refusal to allow her to get medical treatment outside the camp was illegal and inhumane.

“They killed her; they actually killed her, slowly, one stab at a time, they tortured her to death”

Out of the RTL camp in 2011, Cao Shunli picked up her work where she had left off. “Beijing has a judiciary open house day,” she told RFI. “After I was released, I took petitioners to visit RTL camps. We did this twice. I said I must expose this. What they did was to humiliate you and to destroy your dignity. Through my time in RTL camps, I learned about China’s human rights conditions from another aspect.”

She continued to collect human rights condition questionnaires, she prepared requests for information disclosure from the State Council about China’s National Human Rights Action Plan, and she once again petitioned to participate in the writing of this action plan.

“She collected several thousand cases of human rights abuses,” her friend Zhou Li tweeted, “Can you imagine how much work that was?”

“She even translated over a thousand pages of international laws,” Ms. Zhou said in another recent tweet.

On June 18, 2013, Cao Shunli organized a group of mostly female petitioners, known as the “Cao Shunli team,” and they went to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They demanded that they be included in the writing of China’s human rights report to the UN Human Rights Council due on July 22. The international conventions that China signed require a country’s human rights report to be written by diverse stakeholders and to represent the true picture of the country’s human rights situation.

“We are appealing to the MOF because we want to let them know, through communication and consultation, that during the four years from China’s issuance of National Human Rights Action Plan to the human rights report China will soon be delivering in front of the UN, human rights conditions in China have not improved,” Cao Shunli told RFI.

Cao Shunli (fourth from left) outside the FOM with her petitioner group last summer.

Cao Shunli (fourth from left) outside the FOM with her petitioner group last summer.

The MOF first gave them the runaround, then rejected their request outright. Cao Shunli and her group decided to take turns to sit in day and night on the sidewalks outside the MOF gate.

“During the 24/7 camp-out in front of the MOF,” Ms. Zhou Li tweeted, “when people were tied, they would lie down on a piece of cardboard off the sidewalks, but Cao Shunli never did.  She always sat up in the chair and she sat straight. She told everyone: ‘Take a break when you are tired, but as for me, I should sit. We don’t want them to see we are all lying around. We want them to see that we are legitimate, we are serious.’ She sat there, for ninety days and nights.”

Labor camps damaged Cao Shunli’s health, and she had suffered liver problems for a long time and other illnesses. But after she was detained in Beijing Chaoyang Detention Center, she was denied treatment, and even the medications she had carried with her were confiscated, according to her lawyer. Her health deteriorated rapidly. A checkup demanded by her lawyer last November found Cao Shunli was suffering from tuberculosis in both lungs, pleural effusion, and hysteromyoma.  Repeated applications for medical parole by her lawyer and family were denied.

Prominent activist Hu Jia has learned that, when she died, Cao Shunli was in a state of Cachexia — dramatic weight loss and muscle atrophy seen in patients with terminal illnesses. Her body was covered in black patches and her skin showed scale-like cracks. “Doctors at 309 Hospital were shocked to see Cao Shunli’s bedsores,” Hu Jia told Deutsche Welle.

Human rights lawyer Teng Biao, who has in-depth knowledge of the Chinese government’s use of torture, warned against the hasty conclusion that Cao Shunli died of “delayed medical treatment.” “It’s unlikely that she died without being tortured and treated inhumanely. Keep in mind of Gao Zhisheng, Xue Jinbo, Sun Zhigang, Perma Norbu, Li Shulian, ‘hide-and-seek‘ in a long list of Chinese citizens who were tortured badly, or tortured to death, in detention centers and prisons.”

Since Cao Shunli’s death, the hospital has been under heavy guard to prevent mourners from gathering. Netizens who signed a signature campaign demanding the truth about Cao Shunli’s death were interrogated by police, according to reports on Twitter. As of now, the family does not know the whereabouts of her body. Activists in Beijing have been placed under house arrest that prevents them from leaving home to organize vigils and attend Cao Shunli’s funeral.

Baidu search result.

Baidu search result.

As soon as the news of Cao Shunli’s death broke, Sina Weibo censored her name; the Chinese propaganda authorities instructed that “concerning so-called rights defender Cao Shunli dying of illness while awaiting trial: the media must not report the story, and interactive [online] platforms must take care to thoroughly delete all related images and commentary.” A search for Cao Shunli on Baidu, the Chinese search engine that thinks it is Google, gives the search result of  “according to relevant law, statues and policies, the search results shall not be displayed.”

Cao Shunli died, and she must die anonymously in silence. The Chinese government does not want anyone to see a trace of her anywhere.   

Indeed, she is little known. Writing this profile I had trouble finding direct quotes from her except in a handful of pieces. But going through the reports to different offices of the Chinese government, to the UN, she had prepared all these years, one is shocked by their volume and more so by the persistence behind it. On Twitter, when a veteran activist expressed bewilderment at how little she knows about Cao Shunli, one tweep replied, “she looks just like a petitioner.” And Ms. Zhou replied, “[she] worked. She just worked.”

Since her death, the US, Britain, EU, Canada and more governments and  international human rights organizations expressed sadness and “disturbance.” But I feel there is a general inertia and hollowness in all the condemnations. It is like the only thing the world community has left to do is talk the talk.

Last fall during the UPR at the UN Human Rights Council, Cao Shunli’s name was never mentioned, yet she was the one Chinese who had had faith in the UN system, whether the institution or the collection of nations or both, who connected ordinary Chinese victims of rights abuses to the UN’s human rights framework, who inspired many more Chinese to demand their universal political and civil rights, and who paid the ultimate price for it.

American first lady Michelle Obama and her daughters will arrive in Beijing Wednesday for a visit. The White House officials announced that the first lady will “avoid contentious topics, including China’s human rights violations.”

That is a shame. When the first lady sit down with China’s first lady and have a good chat, enjoying China at its “finest,” they will avoid talking about Cao Shunli, one of China’s most courageous woman warriors who happens to be about the same age as the two illustrious first ladies, or any Chinese languishing behind bars for daring to envision a different China and fight for it. Too bad Michelle will not be seeing the real China, because Cao Shunli is China, China is Cao Shunli.





CHRB’s  Rebuttal to Chinese Authorties’ Claim about the Death of Cao Shunli