A chilling point of order for SA

2014-03-26 15:14

South Africa’s election to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in November was seen as a victory because of the country’s rich history of fighting oppression and injustice.

The election was seen as a positive event that would strengthen the UN’s resolve to confront abuse around the world. But on March 20, all those hopes were shattered – in a single and abrupt point of order.

Delegations had gathered at the UN to adopt a report on China’s human rights record. The meeting would have been unremarkable had it not been for the death a week earlier of the Chinese activist Cao Shunli.

Cao had been arrested in September to prevent her from boarding a flight to Geneva to attend a training session ahead of the UN Human Rights Council review of China’s rights record.

For months, Cao, a long-time activist, had been pressuring Beijing to allow genuine, independent views by activist groups to feed into the drafting of the government’s report for the review.

She submitted public letters and organised peaceful protests in front of the Foreign Affairs Ministry demanding governmental transparency in the drafting process and participation by independent voices.

After her arrest at Bejing airport, Cao disappeared for several weeks, with Chinese authorities refusing to release information about where she was. A month later they said she had been charged with “picking quarrels and provoking troubles” and would be kept in detention.

Cao’s health deteriorated dramatically during her months in detention. In November, she was diagnosed with pneumonia in her lungs. Her family asked the authorities to grant her medical parole, but medical assistance was repeatedly refused. It was only when she fell into a coma in February that prison officials finally transferred her to a Beijing hospital where she died on March 14.

But what has the death of this Chinese activist got to do with South Africa’s membership on the UN Human Rights Council?

It was China’s fear that Cao would use China’s rights review at the UN to press for changes back home that led to her arbitrary arrest and subsequent death. In Geneva, human rights activists mobilised to press the UN Human Rights Council to question China on the death of the activist. But no steps were taken. Faced with the UN’s inaction, the activists decided to use the time allotted to them during the adoption of China’s rights report to at least observe a moment of silence in her memory. But even that was too much for the Chinese delegation.

The Chinese delegation disrupted the moment of silence with a vociferous point of order demanding that the activists speak and not keep silent – the greatest of ironies!

Numerous delegations raised their flags and a debate ensued about whether the speaker should be allowed to use his time to remain silent. And this is where South Africa comes in.

The South African delegate took the floor and warned that allowing the activists to proceed with the moment of silence would “create a dangerous precedent” that the council would not be able to sustain in the future.

He noted that the action was “irregular and incompatible with the rules of procedure of this council”.

South Africa’s choice to stand with the government that prevented Cao Shunli from participating in the UN came as a blow to the activist community – a community that was willing to stand up for Cao just as it had been willing to denounce the injustice of apartheid.

South Africa’s concern that the moment of silence – not the death of the activist – was setting a bad precedent in the UN body sent such a chilling message to the human rights community that it should not be ignored.

South Africa’s support for China’s point of order raises concerns about the next three years of its membership at the UN Human Rights Council.

Will South Africa use its membership to support the struggles of activists like Cao or will it side with the powerful, the human rights violators who prevent activists like her from using their voices and courage?

A series of votes on Thursday and Friday at the UN Human Rights Council will begin to tell.

The disruption of Cao’s moment of silence was a wake-up call. South Africa should stand with the world’s victims and not its perpetrators. Cao Shunli would have supported that.

» Juliette De Rivero is Geneva director at Human Rights Watch

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