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Portugal should use its presidency of the European Union to step up the defense of rights worldwide, Human Rights Watch said today. Portugal takes over the rotating EU Presidency from Germany for six months beginning on July 1.

“The EU is the world’s leading collection of democracies, founded on a commitment to liberty and the rule of law,” said Lotte Leicht, EU advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “As Portugal inherits the leadership mantle, it must make the EU a strong and effective defender of human rights.”

The EU’s credibility on human rights and rule of law will to a large extent be tested by its response to violations by the “big three” – Russia, China and the US – by its response to emergencies such as the crisis in Darfur, and by observance of human rights within Europe, Human Rights Watch said.

No situation is more pressing than the bloody crisis in Darfur, Human Rights Watch said, with more than 200,000 dead, approximately 2 million displaced, and around 4 million dependent on international food relief. While the Sudanese government has recently signaled its agreement to the deployment of an African Union-United Nations hybrid force in Darfur to help protect civilians, Khartoum’s constant pattern of delay and broken promises in the past means that continued pressure is warranted, Human Rights Watch said.

“Only international pressure has forced Sudan to agree to a protection force,” said Leicht. “Only continued pressure will make that force a reality, stop war crimes and bring justice to the victims.”

The deteriorating human rights situation in Russia also looms large. Earlier this month, Portugal’s Prime Minister José Sócrates told Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in Moscow that there would be no more European Union moralizing about Russia’s human rights record, saying that “no one should claim to lecture anyone else” [“ninguém pretenda dar lições a ninguém”].

“Sócrates’ words in Moscow were a terrible blow to Russia’s besieged civil society,” said Leicht. “It’s time for the EU to have an honest and robust conversation with Russia about atrocities in Chechnya, restrictions on the freedom of expression, and the harassment of NGOs.”

With respect to China, the EU has steadily muted its human rights critique, relegating most public comments to bland written statements that are easily ignored. The EU maintains a periodic human rights “dialogue” with China, which has produced little measurable progress. Human Rights Watch said it was time for the EU to articulate clear human rights criteria for lifting the EU’s arms embargo imposed in response to the Tiananmen massacre in 1989.

US abuses against detainees in the “war on terror” remain a major concern, with European governments sometimes complicit through secret detention of “disappeared” suspects in Poland and Romania, and the apprehension of suspects in Europe and their rendition to governments that systematically torture. Last year, the EU finally issued a joint call to close the detainee base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Human Rights Watch said that the EU must now step up pressure on the United States to take practical steps to close Guantanamo, to end the CIA secret detention program and to stop renditions.

“As a humanitarian gesture, consistent with the European Union’s call for closure of Guantanamo, Portugal should rally European leaders to offer asylum to 18 Chinese Uighurs who have been slated for release from Guantanamo but who are unable to return to their home country for fear of torture,” said Leicht.

Human Rights Watch pointed out that when Timor-Leste was suffering under Indonesian occupation, Portugal led the international campaign against abuses there.

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