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Human Rights Watch Evidence Submitted for Consideration in the Inquiry into “The European Union and China”

By the House of Lords Sub-Committee on EU Foreign Affairs, Defence and Development Policy

[Prepared for the Sub-Committee on EU Foreign Affairs, Defence and Development Policy]

Human Rights Watch welcomes the opportunity to respond to the "Call for Evidence" regarding "The European Union and China." The European Union (EU) can and should be more confident in its dealings with China. China needs the EU as much or more than the EU needs China. The EU should take greater advantage of the value the Chinese government places on the relationship to promote not just diplomatic and trade ties but also respect for internationally recognized human rights and the rule of law, which fundamentally underpin many of the EU's core objectives. 

EU obligations to promote rights in China

The rights embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are just that, "universal." No matter how vigorous China's objections may be from time to time, EU member states should never hesitate to speak, in private and public, about human rights problems in China. In this way the EU and its people are working in common cause with those in China working to achieve the level of respect for human rights which citizens of EU states now take for granted. Indeed, collectively we have won the argument, as the Chinese constitution and Chinese law now use the term "human rights" and the government has now announced a "national human rights action plan." All of this provides a strong platform for EU advocacy on problems such as workers' rights; protection of the rights to freedom of speech, association and religion; repression of minority populations; release of political prisoners; and rejection of the death penalty. The EU's stated support for these internationally recognized rights speak for Europe's empathy with those striving for similar protections around the world. 

More than a decade ago, the EU agreed to abandon scrutiny of China's human rights record at the United Nations Human Rights Commission. The minimal commitments China offered to obtain that assurance remain largely unrealized, as the government has yet to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) or follow through on many other commitments made at the time. 

With the demise of the Human Rights Commission, the primary venue in which the Chinese government's human rights record is challenged by EU members is the new Human Rights Council's Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism. In China's first appearance before the Human Rights Council in February 2009, several EU member states, and most notably the Czech Republic on behalf of the EU, raised multiple issues of grave concern, ranging from torture in police custody to abuses of ethnic minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang. We appreciate these interventions, but to be effective they require follow up, and now is the time to do so with the Chinese government. At present, there is little indication that the recommendations made through the UPR process will be adopted or pursued in any meaningful way. As Chinese rights activists regularly tell us, progress will not happen without sustained international interest and pressure. China's key partners, such as the EU, need to use the human rights dialogue process to press China publicly and privately on its international obligations and make clear that implementation of Human Rights Council recommendations is of utmost importance.

The challenge for the EU is to make equally powerful interventions in all of its interactions with the Chinese government, particularly in the forums important to the Chinese government, such as trade discussions. Even if the Chinese government rejects the EU view, the EU should make human rights an important and meaningful part of its own message to the Chinese government outside the established EU-China human rights dialogues (see below) or the UN framework, and articulate consequences for failing to alleviate those abuses. 

Such discussions will be difficult, but they need not be confrontational. The Chinese government respects, though does not welcome, honest dialogue between partner states on human rights issues, particularly when there is a mutual recognition that no country has a perfect rights record. It takes advantage of signs of weakness. The EU can lead these discussions by example through demonstrating the efforts and progress the EU has made to comply with international human rights standards both with regards to civil and political rights as well as economic, social and cultural rights. Through such interaction, the EU can more meaningfully position itself as a partner to assist China in meeting its own human rights challenges. Moreover, implementation of recommendations made during such discussions will largely be a function of the EU's willingness to move human rights issues further up on its political agenda, coupled by regular reminders of expectations of compliance.

One fruitful strategy may be to identify a few common human rights goals linked to international standard setting, ratification of an agreement, or establishment of better enforcement mechanisms. Topics the Chinese government may find acceptable could include ratification of the Convention against Enforced Disappearance, or adoption of a Security Council mechanism on behalf of women affected by armed conflict. The Chinese government has shown some support for similar efforts on other issues, including children in armed conflict, and may therefore be likely to respond positively to being seen as an international standard-setter. It does, however, bear mention that China has on some occasions worked to weaken international norms, such that the EU would have to be prepared to defend the highest standards.

The state of human rights in the People's Republic of China

The government of the People's Republic of China has committed itself to strengthening human rights protection, as embodied by the inclusion in 2004 in the Constitution of a provision that says that "the State respect and protect human rights." The government has endeavored to further develop legal institutions, sought to improve legal protection for workers, renewed pledges to improve access to education and health care, supported large poverty-alleviation and basic infrastructure, implemented national policies to combat HIV-AIDS, and pledged to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which it signed a decade ago.

But extensive human rights violations, including sharp limits on the exercise of fundamental freedoms, continue. These limits are compounded by the fact that the ultimate source of authority at every level of government is not the government itself but the Communist Party of China (CPC). The legal system, including the judiciary, remains explicitly under the "supervision and guidance" of the Party despite being nominally independent. Party control is reinforced by the constitutional prohibition of any action that detracts from the "four cardinal principles," which include upholding the "leadership of the CPC" and the "people's democratic dictatorship." These imperatives bar any direct criticism of the CPC by any individual or organization. Every year, hundreds of prosecutions for "subversion" and "separatism" attest to the strict enforcement of these prohibitions.

In addition to these institutional constraints, urgent human rights concerns in the People's Republic of China include: harassment and prosecution of dissidents and human rights defenders; the use of re-education-through-labor and administrative detention; deprivation of liberty without court procedures; forced confessions and torture in the justice system; active and overt political censorship of media and internet content; executions and judicial procurement of organ transplants; child labor including in state schools; abuses against petitioners and other citizens seeking redress against state institutions; persecution of religious believers who refuse to join state-controlled churches; large-scale forced evictions and involuntary resettlements to make way for infrastructure projects; forced abortions and abuses of family planning regulations; illegal land seizures by corrupt officials; discrimination against rural citizens formalized by the household registration system; and repression of ethnic Tibetans in Tibet and Uighurs in Xinjiang.

An ongoing failure to rectify these problems has serious consequences not just for the people of China, but for the European Union and others. China cannot today be considered to function according to the rule of law, which compromises its ability to make and uphold in a predictable fashion legal commitments in areas including civil and commercial law.  China's increasingly globalized economy has been a boon for its export sector and benefited consumers in the EU and other import destinations. However, domestic censorship in China can make it virtually impossible for foreign governments and their consumers to be aware of-let alone respond effectively to-public health and product safety crises which originate in China. Obstacles to justice for ordinary citizens, and persecution of lawyers and legal activists who take up sensitive cases, present a grave challenge to the government's advocated goal of a "harmonious society," triggering instead a sharp increase in domestic social unrest.  And at a time of dire economic straits, discrimination against already-vulnerable populations such as ethnic minorities and migrant workers is likely to increase, further compromising social stability. Each of these problems makes China a less reliable diplomatic, economic, and strategic partner, and compromises global efforts to meaningfully tackle international environmental problems, contagious disease control and corruption.

The efficacy and coherence of the EU's efforts to promote human rights in China

It has been almost a decade since Human Rights Watch wrote that we "supported the European Union in its bring about improvements in human rights in China through on-going dialogue with Chinese government officials, combined with rule of law exchanges. However, we continue to believe that dialogue and exchange programs alone are insufficient, and we are deeply concerned that the China-EU bilateral dialogue has become largely a rhetorical shell, lacking in accountability, transparency, and clear benchmarks for progress." That stance has been reiterated on the occasion of each dialogue, as benchmarks have yet to be publicly articulated, and we remain unclear as to what the EU itself considers progress in the dialogues. 

Moreover, while Human Rights Watch appreciates the EU's efforts to include nongovernmental organizations such as ours in the human rights dialogue seminars, the reality is that the EU has allowed the Chinese government to dictate which NGOs may be included even in meetings held in Europe. This has forced those who are invited into an invidious position: participate in the hopes of having some positive input into the discussion knowing that we are divided as we do so, or refuse to participate to protest the exclusion of some groups and have no input at all. It is unclear to us how hard the EU has pushed back against Chinese efforts to censor NGO participation.

Even on the occasions when Human Rights Watch has participated in such forums, it is clear that the discussions are maximally structured to prevent frank discussions about human rights conditions inside China. While there is some merit to helping establish connections between Chinese and European experts in areas such as labor law and the protections of ethnic minorities, this should not be a substitute for fact- and case-based discussions of real and serious abuses.  That the organization and management of these dialogues is now being handed over to an academic network further suggests that the discussions will be just that: academic in nature, not a matter of political concern or governmental obligation.

The dialogues have also suffered because they have not been buttressed by comparable, consistent high-level political efforts and expressions of concern highlighting the EU's expectations across the full spectrum of the EU-China relationship. EU-China summits are given extraordinary levels of political attention and resources, and diplomats are extremely careful in their choice of words. On human rights, however, the messages are often mixed. For example, some EU heads of government have met publicly with the Dalai Lama; others have abruptly withdrawn invitations for him to visit. Some have altered their positions on Tibet (though deny having done so), while others have stood firm and insisted that Beijing engage in negotiations with Tibetan representatives. 

While Human Rights Watch recognizes that that there may be differences of opinion between member states on some of these issues, an inability to generate and display consistency to Beijing on rights concerns reduces the likelihood of achieving change. The Chinese government notes and exploits inconsistencies in order to further undermine efforts at meaningful dialogue on human rights issues.

Human Rights Watch believes that the Chinese government not only responds to international pressure, but responds all the more when countries express concerns jointly and with one voice. One of the best mechanisms for doing so in the past-the Berne Process-has become virtually invisible. We strongly urge that these meetings be convened regularly and publicly, and that they include input from relevant experts and NGOs.

How the EU should deal with China as a foreign policy player generally

China's role as a major international actor is now indisputable, and Human Rights Watch has credited the Chinese government for some of its positive actions, such as contributing large numbers of peacekeepers to UN peacekeeping missions.

Yet there are many ways in which the model and practice of Chinese foreign policy crucially undermines international efforts to defend human rights. First, the Chinese Communist Party's model of development-rapid economic growth without a commensurate increase in civil or political rights, alongside general resistance to international pressure-is hardly a positive example. Economic development in China has brought a greater degree of social freedoms, and of course reduced the number of people in poverty, but the fact remains that it is a government highly repressive of its critics, often on the grounds that their criticism jeopardizes state stability and growth. In addition, that rapid growth has been enabled by gross violations of labor rights, rampant expropriation by officials of land and other public resources, environmental devastation, and suppression of public discontent about these developments. In this sense, the Chinese "model" is not one rights activists wish to see replicated.

Second, in the context of the United Nations, Chinese diplomats have become adept at undermining or obstructing the work of the organization's promotion of human rights. For example, Chinese officials often block UN Security Council resolutions that entail targeted sanctions against gross offenders such as a proposed resolution in January 2007 on Burma and a later resolution condemning the Burmese junta's September 2007 assault on thousands of peaceful demonstrators. By obstructing multilateral efforts against an abusive government or impeding international investigations into the nature and scope of human rights abuses, such actions contribute to the misery of those who are already suffering.  However, on at least two issues on which the EU engaged China at the highest levels-Security Council resolution 1593, which referred the situation in Darfur to the International Criminal Court, and on resolutions on the Middle East-China has been willing to either show support or abstain. 

China's actions at the UN Human Rights Council also demonstrate a concerted effort to roll back structures and procedures for protecting rights. China was one of several countries to propose that country mandates and "special procedures" be abandoned or restricted. It suggested that only governments should be able to submit statements in the Universal Periodic Review process. Chinese diplomats have complained that non-governmental organizations' involvement in the Human Rights Council should be "controlled." In 2006, China objected to the council accepting a report on human rights conditions in Darfur on the grounds that the authors had not actually been inside the country and therefore its report could not be accurate. That entry into the country had been denied by precisely the people thought to be responsible for human rights abuses (and precisely in order to evade scrutiny) seemed immaterial to China. 

Third, while Beijing may have deep philosophical differences with the EU on the efficacy of conditioning aid, it has indisputably provided a crucial financial lifeline to countries with poor human rights records. This has often undermined efforts made by other international actors, including the EU, to use financial leverage to improve rights. Without steady flows of Chinese aid, investment, weapons, and political support it is possible that the governments of Burma's General Than Shwe, Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir, and Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe, among others, might already have had to answer for their human rights crimes before a court of law, be consigned to history or had their ability to abuse their citizens dramatically limited by a lack of resources.

Finally, there is growing evidence to suggest that official and unofficial Chinese investment in developing economies compromises local labor standards, particularly in large-scale infrastructure or extractive industry projects. While Human Rights Watch has not yet conducted research into allegations of paying subminimum wages, abusive working conditions, or the use of prison labor (either local or Chinese) in such countries, credible evidence exists, and is consistent with extensively documented poor labor practices in China. While it is true that the labor conditions in many of the investment-receiving countries are already poor, the Chinese government and entrepreneurs appear to have no strategy or intention of making higher standards a hallmark of their presence. 

There are some steps China can take that are consistent with its current world view which will help victims of human rights abuses. At a minimum, Beijing should reconsider its aid strategies. It seems highly unlikely that China will begin imposing human rights conditions on aid projects, but it can at least suspend gratuitously inappropriate projects, such as the new presidential palace for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, and reallocate those funds to other projects that would help those most in need. In the direst circumstances, such as the crackdown in Burma in September 2007, it should suspend some non-humanitarian aid to send a political signal. Should it fail to do so, the Chinese government should recognize that its actions will give others legitimate grounds to criticize its agenda and question its motives. Simply being more transparent about aid, particularly in countries with serious human rights issues, would also be a significant improvement.

China could also articulate the conditions under which it will set aside its insistence on sovereignty and non-interference, particularly with respect to human rights crises. By ratifying legally binding international human rights treaties China's obligations are clear.[1] When in 2005 it affirmed the "responsibility to protect" at the UN, China agreed that member states are obliged to intervene when a government fails to protect its own population against crimes against humanity, genocide, ethnic cleansing and war crimes. It is not yet clear under what circumstances China will endorse the doctrine's use-if it is serious, the discussion in China (and elsewhere) should move on from whether to treat state sovereignty as an impregnable boundary to how it will join with other countries to intervene in the most egregious humanitarian crises when circumstances require. In order for the responsibility to protect to be implemented, a standby UN force, including civil police and human rights monitors, that can be quickly mobilized should be developed. Chinese support for creating such a force would indicate true international responsibility.

Adopting legislation to hold Chinese companies to international standards on labor rights, matched by resources to enforce such regulations, would be a key step forward. Doing so would demonstrate the Chinese government's commitment to being a truly positive force in developing economies, possibly leverage reforms at home, and make it a more equitable international economic competitor.

Finally, China should be truer to its own rhetoric that it is a devoted friend of the developing world. It should see its foreign policy as not just about relations with other governments, but about helping improve the well-being of the people of those states. This would earn China the gratitude of people around the globe. But it will require a policy that accepts that human beings need civil and political rights as well as economic development.

Human Rights Watch believes that not only has the European Union failed to press the Chinese government to take steps such as these-ones that remain within the confines of China's general foreign policy philosophy-nor has it done enough to resist Chinese efforts to block international action on serious human rights crises, such as Burma, Sri Lanka, Sudan, and Zimbabwe. Doing so effectively requires vigorous, concerted diplomacy not just within the EU, but with other like-minded governments. If the EU remains unwilling to match China's diplomatic resources on issues such as these, progress will remain elusive.

The EU arms embargo on China

In the wake of the bloody crackdown on prodemocracy protestors in China in June 1989, the EU imposed an arms embargo. Some EU member states, such as France, have suggested in recent years that the arms embargo be lifted, while others insist that it remain in place.  In the two decades since the Tiananmen Square massacre, the EU has never collectively articulated a set of concrete benchmarks the Chinese government must meet in order to reverse the decision, once again eroding a sense of unity and suggesting to the Chinese government that it need not do anything to address the Tiananmen legacy. 

Those benchmarks could include a serious, transparent, and impartial investigation into the massacre, accountability for those who ordered soldiers to open fire on demonstrators, compensation to victims and family members, release of those still in prison, and accounting for those who are victims of enforced disappearance. Establishing these standards would enable a process of implementation to begin, and even meeting only some of the benchmarks would be considered progress. 

Human Rights Watch believes that this embargo should remain in place until the reasons for its imposition have been addressed. These include:

  • a general amnesty for all persons imprisoned for any form of peaceful protest related to the Tiananmen massacre; 
  • new trials that meet international fair trial standards, attended by international observers, for all persons still serving sentences for cognizable criminal offenses related to the 1989 demonstrations; and
  • an independent investigation into the events surrounding the massacre and prosecutions of those responsible for serious human right violations.

We can think of no better way to both demonstrate the EU's commitment to human rights and to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre than by putting this topic at the center of your upcoming summit.

[1] As a member of the United Nations, China is expected to uphold the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. China is a party to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.  It has signed but not ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

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