China blocks tribute to dead dissident at UN rights council

GENEVA (AFP) - China locked horns Thursday with Western nations after campaigners tried to get the UN's top human rights forum to hold a minute's silence for a dissident who died in detention.

Beijing and its allies at the UN Human Rights Council used procedural moves to block an attempt by a coalition of rights groups to pay tribute to Cao Shunli, who died March 14.

"We oppose NGOs conducting activities outside their alloted speaking time," China's envoy Wu Hailong told the council, after the International Service for Human Rights tried to use its speech-making slot to hold a silence on behalf of a broad coalition of groups.

"According to the rules, at this meeting NGOs can only make general comments and statement," he added.

Lining up in China's support were countries including Iran, Pakistan, Cuba and Venezuela - the latter said such behaviour "violates the gravitas and decorum of this forum".

UN-accredited campaign groups are permitted to speak at sessions of the council, and US delegation chief Paula Schriefer took Beijing to task for its stance.

"An organisation should be permitted to use its allotted time in whatever relevant manner it deems fit. Members of the council have no authority to dictate the content of relevant interventions by civil society organisations," Ms Schriefer said.

"That fact applies to any intervention that includes silence, as much as any spoken intervention," she added.

Canada, Britain, Germany, and Greece in the name of the 28-nation European Union were also among the delegations defending the campaigners' right to honour Ms Cao.

The 52-year-old died after being detained since September, shortly before she had been due to come to Geneva to attend a council session on China's rights record.

She had been denied medical treatment for several months after falling ill, her family and lawyers told AFP. She was only sent to hospital after suffering organ failure and falling unconscious in late February.

China has insisted that her rights were protected all along and denied that she was mistreated.

On Monday, Beijing said that Ms Cao had suffered from "prolonged illness", blaming tuberculosis and severe pneumonia for causing organ failure "despite all the rescue efforts".