Tribute to deceased Chinese dissident exposes fractures at UN rights body

By Emma Farge

GENEVA, March 22 (Reuters) - China interrupted an attempt by several non-governmental groups on Friday to pay homage to a late Chinese human rights activist in a tense incident at a U.N. rights body that exposed divisions between Western countries and supporters of Beijing.

The groups were seeking to honour Cao Shunli, who died 10 years ago after being detained for staging sit-ins outside China's foreign ministry. NGOs have called her death a "deadly reprisal" - a finding supported by U.N. reports which say the denial of medical treatment led to her death.

China denies this, saying she had been ill for a long time and died despite treatment, but the country has yet to fully investigate the incident, U.N. rights experts say.

A Chinese human rights defender speaking on behalf of one of the groups, the International Service for Human Rights, held a brief moment of silence at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva to mark the anniversary of her death.

"I ask everybody to mirror the courage of victims of reprisals and always stand in solidarity with them," she said on behalf of 17 NGOs including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, before being interrupted by China's envoy.

"This is contrary to the purpose of the council, seriously affecting the principle of non-politicisation and the non-confrontation principle," said Han Xincheng from China's diplomatic mission, appealing to the body's Moroccan President Omar Zniber to terminate her speech.

Numerous countries then piled into the debate to back either China or the NGO speaker, with Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea and Russia siding with the former and the United States, Britain, Canada and the European Union supporting the latter.

The NGO speaker, who asked not to be named for her protection, was permitted to continue and added: "Dearest Big Sister Cao, rest in peace, there will be light at the end of the night", prompting a burst of applause and a rebuke from Zniber.

The episode laid bare deep divisions within the U.N. rights body, where China and others are gaining momentum in blocking mostly Western-led attempts to raise scrutiny of countries' rights records, arguing that such efforts are counter-productive as well as hypocritical given their colonial pasts.

The 47-member council is the only intergovernmental global body to promote and protect human rights worldwide and can mandate investigations. Its evidence is sometimes used to prosecute war crimes in national and international courts.

(Reporting by Emma Farge, Editing by William Maclean)

((emma.farge@thomsonreuters.com;))

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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