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(Brussels) – The European Union (EU) should use its upcoming summit with China to demonstrate its new commitment to protect and promote human rights around the world, Human Rights Watch said today. The EU-China summit will take place September 20 in Brussels.

EU foreign ministers pledged in June 2012 that the EU will now “raise human rights issues vigorously in all appropriate forms of bilateral dialogue, including at the highest level.”

“China is often a litmus test for other governments’ willingness to raise human rights,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. The upcoming summit presents an ideal opportunity to reverse a legacy of EU reticence in addressing human rights concerns with Chinese officials.”

In 2012, Human Rights Watch has continued to document serious human rights abuses in China. Those include, among others, increasing restrictions on the freedom of expression, movement, and religion for Tibetans, likely contributing to the crisis of self-immolations in that region; the forced return of more than 4,000 Kachin refugees from Yunnan to a conflict zone in northern Burma; the adoption of a second National Human Rights Action Plan that significantly weakens previous rhetorical commitments to the universality of rights; and the alarming growth and unchecked power of domestic security forces.

The EU has historically pursued a weak approach on human rights concerns in China, expressing concern only when the majority of member states agreed to do so and often failing to raise human rights for fear of jeopardizing economic ties. In advance of the last EU-China summit, held in February 2012, Human Rights Watch urged the EU to raise a number of issues; there is little evidence to suggest these steps were pursued. In May 2012, the EU held its 31st round of official human rights talks with China. While this round was not abruptly cancelled by the Chinese government, as has happened as recently as late 2011, it did once again fail to establish benchmarks to be met by the Chinese government for continuing to convene the discussions. Moreover, the Chinese government has repeatedly stated over the past year that the dialogue should be held once rather than twice a year.

On some occasions, the EU has offered forceful interventions on human rights concerns. At the June 2012 session of the Human Rights Council, EU diplomats offered a forceful statement under Item 4. They expressed concerns about freedom of expression, arbitrary detention, the rights of minorities, use of the death penalty, and enforced disappearances, among other issues.

With the adoption on June 25, 2012, of a landmark human rights package, EU foreign ministers pledged that human rights, democracy, and rule of law will be promoted “in all areas of the EU's external actions without exception” and that the EU will “place human rights at the center of its relations with all third countries including strategic partners.”At that time, Human Rights Watch said that the test of this commitment would be whether the EU would follow through with its promise to throw its “full weight behind advocates of liberty, democracy, and human rights throughout the world.”

On June 26, 2012, however, following the conclusion of the 3rd High-Level EU-China Strategic Dialogue, the joint dialogue communique made no reference to human rights. In her public remarks, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, noted “a good exchange on our respective views on human rights issues. We covered individual rights, the protection of vulnerable groups, the importance of the rule of law.” She provided no details about individual issues or cases raised, nor did she clarify what other steps may have been proposed to better defend human rights.

“High Representative Ashton has many choices in the issues she could raise with Chinese officials,” said Richardson. “Whether it’s the crisis of Tibetans self-immolating, ongoing persecution of human rights defenders, or the forced return of Burmese refugees to a conflict zone, the key is demonstrating seriousness of purpose with respect to the EU’s new policy.”

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