Without Benchmarks, Periodic Talks Risk Losing Legitimacy
June 15, 2011
From the Chinese government’s perspective, these human rights dialogues are a means to limit and isolate any discussion about its dismal human rights record at relatively low diplomatic levels. The EU has gone along with the script, largely treating the dialogues as business-as-usual talk shops, despite the Chinese government’s escalating crackdowns, detentions, and disappearances of activists.
Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch

(New York) - The European Union should set clear and public benchmarks for progress on human rights in China during their human rights dialogue in Beijing on June 16, 2011, Human Rights Watch said today. If the EU does not press for specific results, it will effectively mean that it has surrendered to Chinese government efforts to limit international public scrutiny and discussions about its human rights record, Human Rights Watch said.

"From the Chinese government's perspective, these human rights dialogues are a means to limit and isolate any discussion about its dismal human rights record at relatively low diplomatic levels," said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "The EU has gone along with the script, largely treating the dialogues as business-as-usual talk shops, despite the Chinese government's escalating crackdowns, detentions, and disappearances of activists."

Human Rights Watch has documented a significant increase since mid-February in enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, intimidation, and house arrest of those exercising their right to the freedom of expression. The arrest and continued detention of the artist Ai Weiwei outside of proper legal procedures, the imprisonment at her home of the wife of the Nobel Prize laureate and government critic Liu Xiaobo, and the spurious "subversion" charges against the writer Ran Yunfei, to cite only three cases, are reflections of the most intense crackdown on activists in a generation.

In some instances, EU officials have responded quickly and publicly, such as the statement on April 21 by Catherine Ashton, the vice president of the European Commission, that she was "deeply concerned at the deterioration in the human rights situation in China." In other instances, the EU response has been muted.

EU leaders have by and large failed to use high level meetings with China to speak up about its severe repression of dissent. For example, the European Council president, Herman van Rompuy, did not publicly raise any individual cases or identify any of the prevailing human rights abuses during his visit to China in May.

In his most extensive public remarks on human rights, in a speech at the Chinese Communist Party School in Beijing, he said: "Safeguarding human rights and the rule of law is part of [China's reputation]. China and the EU have both signed up to the international instruments that enshrine the universal values of human rights, and we have a shared responsibility to uphold them. This work is among the core values the European Union is built on. It is of deep concern for European citizens, and it is reflected in our diplomacy across the world. China's contribution to implementing the universal principles of human rights and rule of law will be an important element shaping its global public reputation."

EU officials have also failed to express concern publicly when the integrity of the human rights dialogue itself has been threatened. The EU made no announcement when China cancelled a human rights dialogue meeting in December 2010. The cancellation followed the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu, a well known Chinese writer who is serving an 11-year prison sentence in northeastern China.

Human Rights Watch urged the EU to take immediate steps to transform the dialogue into an instrument for progress. It should make the recent crackdown on writers, lawyers, and civil society activists its top agenda item. It should establish benchmarks, such as releasing individual political prisoners, and providing the whereabouts and condition of everyone who has been disappeared since mid-February. If such easily verifiable benchmarks are not met, the EU should explain publicly the reasons for not proceeding with the next round.

Human Rights Watch also called on the EU to make public immediately after the June 16 session the substance, tone, and outcome of the discussions.

"If the EU's human rights dialogue with China is not making a positive difference to Chinese activists and ordinary citizens, it has lost its utility - and legitimacy," Richardson said.