The U.S. Department of State named fourteen reformers and civil society activists as recipients of the 2016 International Women of Courage Award. They included women from nations across the globe, from Mauritania to Malaysia and beyond. Thirteen accepted the award personally from Secretary of State John Kerry, who called the awardees role models whose lives convey a clear message: "Don't accept the unacceptable or wait for someone else to step up. Act in the name of justice.”
But as the thirteen honorees sat on the dais at the State Department, Chinese honoree – Ni Yulan -- was absent.
Ni Yulan, a human rights defender, is known for her work in championing housing rights and freedom of religion. For her efforts, she has been subjected to harassment, imprisonment and torture. Although she was not allowed to travel to the United States to receive her award, Secretary of State Kerry praised Ni Yulan in absentia:
“Her outspokenness has led her to imprisonment, during which she was beaten so badly that she became paralyzed from the waist down. But that hasn’t stopped her. She continues to defend the property rights of Beijing residents whose homes have been slated for demolition. And she has launched the Ni Yulan Human Rights Office to connect activists and lawyers across China to advance the cause of justice. Ni Yulan, for your leadership in advocating for the rule of law and full, equal rights in China, we honor you today as a woman of courage.”
The Chinese government’s treatment of Ni Yulan is part of a concerning pattern of its targeting human rights defenders and civil society activists in China for reprisal. As U.S. Ambassador to China Max Baucus has said, the lawyers who “bravely fight for the legal rights of religious believers, journalists, victims of forced evictions…should be embraced as partners, not enemies, of the government.”
Secretary Kerry has observed, “Strong respect for human rights…actually unleashes a country’s potential, and helps to advance growth and progress.” That’s a powerful reason why governments should celebrate, and not thwart the work of courageous human rights defenders like Ni Yulan.