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(Brussels) – The European Union needs to hold China accountable for its human rights obligations under international law or face the prospect that its human rights dialogue with the world’s second largest economy will become irrelevant, Human Rights Watch said today. The EU and China are scheduled to hold a round of the EU-China human rights dialogue on May 29, 2012, in Brussels.

“For years the Chinese government has been running circles around the EU, fully cognizant that at a European level there is no real will to engage on human rights, turning these meetings into exercises of very limited utility,” said Lotte Leicht, EU advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Demands for the rule of law in China have become mainstream among ordinary citizens despite the government’s hostility – but Europe has failed to play its part by holding Beijing to its international obligations and commitments.”

The EU-China human rights dialogues are usually held twice a year, with one session in Europe and one in Beijing. The Chinese government abruptly cancelled the last scheduled round in late 2011, in part apparently as a tactic to reduce the number of dialogue rounds to one a year.

Launched in 1995, the dialogues have long been hampered by a lack of an EU common strategy on human rights in China. Moreover, these dialogues are not well linked with diplomatic initiatives, policies, or other key issues in the EU-China bilateral relationship such as trade, investment, and the environment. The dialogues have consistently failed to deliver any substantive improvement on specific human rights issues in China or compliance with China’s international obligations, Human Rights Watch said.

Human rights dialogues are where concerns should be aired, remedies recommended, expectations regarding  progress raised, commitments made, and strategies agreed, Human Rights Watch said. A meaningful dialogue produces benchmarks for progress.  If there is no progress, the same issues and expectation must be addressed at the highest levels of government, at every summit and ministerial meeting.  Human Rights Watch again urged the EU to develop and implement benchmarks for progress.

The upcoming Brussels meeting comes on the heels of the case of the legal activist Chen Guangcheng. The case became one of the highest profile instances of human rights diplomacy in recent years. After escaping illegal detention at his home in Shandong province, Chen was sheltered by the US Embassy in Beijing until a solution was negotiated and the Chinese government allowed him to go to the US to study law. The negotiations over Chen’s fate took place before, during, and after the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, the most prominent annual meetings between the two governments. Despite the diplomatic crisis surrounding Chen’s case, the Strategic and Economic Dialogue proceeded and was characterized as successful by both parties.

“Chen Guangcheng’s case is proof that governments can engage vigorously on human rights while keeping the other elements of the relationship moving forward,” said Leicht. “Yet Europe has for years compartmentalized away human rights for fear of jeopardizing economic ties to China. As a result, Europe is losing ground on both issues.”

Human Rights Watch said that the EU should seize the opportunity of the rights dialogue to help end the systematic suppression of human rights defenders in China.

In particular, the EU should:

  • Call for the unconditional release of all those imprisoned and detained solely for the peaceful exercise of basic rights, such as the freedoms of expression, assembly, association, and religion. In particular, the EU needs to publicly reiterate its call for the release of Liu Xiaobo, co-drafter of Charter ’08 and recipient of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize;
  • Call for the end of extralegal detention or other extralegal limitations on the rights of activists, their families, and their supporters. They include Liu Xia, Chen Guangcheng’s family, the public health activist Hu Jia and his family, and ethnic Mongolian activist Hada and his family;
  • Call for the Chinese government to reinstate lawyers disbarred in recent years for their engagement in public interest and human rights cases, and remove other barriers to their ability to practice law;
  • Urge the Chinese government to ensure that respect for internationally recognized human rights is not compromised in the name of public or national security; and
  • Urge the immediate establishment of meaningful dialogue between the Chinese government and representatives of Tibetans to address the underlying grievances in the region.


“The EU has an opportunity next week to transform this dialogue into an instrument of rights protection in China,” Leicht said. “A failure to do so will raise serious questions about the utility of the exercise.”


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