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International Human Rights Award Honors Cao Shunli

April 23, 2014

An international jury of ten prominent human rights organizations has selected the late Cao Shunli (顺利) as one of three finalists for the 2014 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders. The award recognizes defenders who have shown deep commitment to human rights in the face of great personal risk.

Nominated by Human Rights in China, Cao is the first in the award’s history to receive the honor posthumously. In addition to recognizing Cao’s courageous efforts in advancing official transparency and citizen participation in China, the award reflects strong international support for an independent investigation into her death, and holding the authorities accountable for reprisals against human rights defenders.

A representative of the growing citizen legal activism in China, Cao Shunli had for years, until her enforced disappearance in September 2013, used Chinese laws and the courts to press the government for greater transparency and to permit citizen participation in its international reporting on the country’s human rights progress.

As a contribution to China’s second Universal Periodic Review by the UN Human Rights Council, Cao prepared a civil society report, detailing the government’s suppression of petitioners and rights defenders attempting to participate in the national human rights monitoring and implementation processes.

Cao was disappeared on September 14, 2013, while en route to Geneva for a human rights training session. The authorities formally arrested her in October on suspicion of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles” (寻衅滋事). In detention, she was denied needed treatment for known medical conditions, and was transferred on February 20, 2014 to a military hospital in Beijing. On March 14, 2014, six months into her detention and just two weeks before her 53rd birthday, Cao’s family arrived at the hospital to find that she had died. Cao’s tragic death prompted significant international concern.

While her death highlighted the Chinese authorities’ reprisals against citizen activists, her path exemplifies the growing rights consciousness in China.

“The Martin Ennals Award’s selection of Cao Shunli is a significant affirmation of the growing citizen activism that her courageous work exemplifies,” said Sharon Hom, Executive Director of Human Rights in China. “This international spotlight will help ensure that her legacy—citizens struggling for voice and participation—will live on.”

An award ceremony will be held in Geneva on October 7, 2014. The members of the international award jury are:

  • Amnesty International
  • Front Line Defenders
  • Human Rights Watch
  • International Commission of Jurists
  • Human Rights First
  • EWDE Germany
  • International Federation for Human Rights
  • International Service for Human Rights
  • World Organisation Against Torture

Cao Shunli Bio

Cao Shunli was a Chinese activist who lost her life in the struggle to build a more just society. From 2008 until her enforced disappearance on September 14, 2013, Cao Shunli vigorously advocated for access to information, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.

A poignant example of China’s increasingly active and diverse civil society, Cao’s primary focus was on efforts to bridge domestic efforts with international processes by encouraging the government’s compliance with international human rights standards. Her activism reflected and fueled the growing rights awareness and desire for participation among Chinese citizens. In addition to advancing human rights within China, Cao’s advocacy contributed to strengthening international human rights by bringing new voices and perspectives on their implementation to the international community.

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