EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Catherine Ashton holds a news conference ahead of an European Union leaders summit in Brussels on March 25, 2010.

© 2010 Reuters

(New York) - The European Union's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security, Catherine Ashton, should publicly raise key human rights concerns on her first official visit to China, Human Rights Watch said today. Ashton will visit China from April 29 to May 1, 2010.

The EU and Ashton have recently expressed such concerns. Two days after a February 2010 Beijing High Court decision to uphold an 11-year prison term for writer and dissident Liu Xiaobo on spurious charges of "inciting subversion of state power," Ashton's office expressed the EU's "deep regrets" about that decision and called for Liu Xiaobo's unconditional release. On January 12, 2010, the European Parliament expressed regret at the Chinese government's December 29, 2009 execution of UK citizen Akhmal Shaikh on drug trafficking charges despite convincing evidence that Shaikh was legally eligible for clemency on mental competency grounds. On July 15, 2009, Ashton, in her former role as EU trade commissioner, expressed concern about "marginalization, discrimination and the exclusion" of ethnic minorities in China, including Tibetans and Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang.

"High Representative Ashton has spoken out forcefully on human rights issues from Brussels; now the test is whether she will do so in Beijing," said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "A failure to do so will also send Beijing a message: that Europe is not serious about the human rights deterioration in China."

Human Rights Watch urges Ashton to raise four key issues, including:

  • Freedom of expression, including internet censorship and the imprisonment and/or persecution of peaceful government critics including Liu Xiaobo, human rights activist Hu Jia, and activist lawyer Gao Zhisheng. The Chinese government devotes massive financial and human resources to tightly monitor and control media and internet content and expression. In recent years the Chinese government has targeted human rights defenders such as Gao Zhisheng and activists such as Hu Jia with an array of administrative and legal sanctions, including prosecution on spurious "subversion" and "state secrets" charges as a means to stifle dissent. Ashton should call for Liu Xiaobo's immediate and unconditional release, the immediate release on medical parole of Hu Jia, who suffers from liver cirrhosis, and an end to the ongoing tight surveillance and periodic arbitrary detention of Gao Zhisheng.
  • Tibet and Xinjiang, particularly the executions of Tibetans alleged to have been involved in the March 2008 protests there, and of Uighurs for involvement in the July 2009 ethnic violence in that region. In the aftermath of protests and rioting in Lhasa and other cities in Tibetan regions in March 2008, thousands of Tibetans had been subject to arbitrary arrest and more than 100 trials have pushed through the judicial system. Little reliable information has emerged since that time to indicate releases, acquittals, or even the whereabouts of those detained. In the aftermath of ethnic violence in the city of Urumqi in Xinjiang region on July 5, 2009, Human Rights Watch has documented that the trials of 21 suspects alleged to have engaged in that violence failed to meet minimum international standards of due process and fair trials.

Human Rights Watch said that Ashton's candor is urgently needed to invigorate European human rights diplomacy with the Chinese government. That diplomacy has been weakened by a lack of more visible, consistent action on human rights, coupled with toothless bilateral human rights dialogues and periodic suggestions by various EU member states for a lifting of the EU arms embargo on China. The EU arms embargo was imposed after the Chinese army killed untold numbers of unarmed civilians in Beijing and other cities on and around June 3 and 4, 1989 - what the world knows as the Tiananmen Massacre.

The Chinese government has consistently refused to provide a list of those killed, "disappeared," or imprisoned in June 1989; failed to publish verifiable casualty figures; quashed all public discussion of June 1989; and continues to victimize survivors, victims' families, and others who challenge the official version of events - all steps that could lead to a discussion on lifting the embargo.

"Ashton has an opportunity to articulate these kinds of benchmarks to the Chinese government, and to make clear that universal human rights remain at the center of EU engagement," Richardson said. "A forceful and consistent position can and should be the mark of EU leadership on human rights in China."