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(Brussels) – European Union (EU) High Representative Catherine Ashton should publicly raise concerns over ongoing and persistent human rights violations in China when she visits Beijing later this week, Human Rights Watch said today. Ashton’s visit to China will take place on April 25 and 26, and is the Head of the EU’s External Action Service’s first official visit since the new Chinese leadership assumed power.

“As EU’s top foreign policy official, Ashton cannot ignore the deteriorating human rights environment in China,” said Lotte Leicht, European Union advocacy director. “She needs to make it a central part of her agenda in Beijing.”

Ashton should also urge top Chinese officials to stop obstructing Security Council action on Syria, including humanitarian access to all civilians in need, and referring  jurisdiction over war crimes and crimes against humanity to the International Criminal Court.

In recent months the EU has issued strong statements, including ones at the United Nations Human Rights Council, on China’s use of the death penalty and the crisis of self-immolations in Tibet, among other issues. The EU also provides some support to human rights defenders in China.

“The voice of the EU needs to be heard on a wide range of issues,” said Leicht. “From Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo’s imprisonment to the Chinese government’s support for the Syrian regime as it attacks the civilian population.”

Yet, the EU’s engagement on human rights in China has been extremely weak since Ashton was nominated as the EU’s first foreign policy chief.

The more than thirty rounds of the official EU-China dialogue on human rights have had little discernible positive effect for those standing up for human rights in China, and at other levels of political dialogue the EU has failed to give human rights and the rule of law a degree of public attention commensurate with the importance of these issues in China.

There is little evidence to suggest that the EU’s statements in defense of human rights are effectively pursued collectively by EU and EU member states diplomats, making it easy for Chinese officials to ignore individual member states or diplomats who do offer up principled criticism. In spite of EU foreign ministers’ June 2012 pledge to “raise human rights issues vigorously in all appropriate forms of bilateral dialogue, including at the highest level” the EU remains hesitant to ensure that human rights violations are addressed and expectations articulated publicly.

For example, when accepting the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize, President of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso and Council President Hebert van Rompuy chose not to mention by name the 2010 Prize-winner, Liu Xiaobo, presumably for fear of irking the Chinese government. The EU, like many other governments, failed to nuance its message of congratulations to the new Chinese leadership to note that its assumption of power was predicated on the denial – not the guarantee – of political participation as guaranteed under international law.

Although the new Chinese leadership has expressed rhetorical support for reform on some key human rights concerns, such as reeducation through labor, abuses remain rampant throughout the country. The Chinese government denies people the full exercise of basic rights such as freedom of expression, association, and religion, and systematically suppresses dissidents and human rights activists.

The Nobel Peace prize laureate Liu Xiaobo is serving an 11-year sentence for “incitement to subvert state power,” and harassment of activists by state authorities can extend to their family members. Central and local government authorities continue to impose particularly harsh and restrictive policies in Tibet and Xinjiang, and fail to address popular and peacefully-articulated grievances in those regions.

On April 23, Liu Xiaobo’s wife, Liu Xia, was seen in public for the first time since October 2010, when she was placed under legally baseless house arrest.  She was allowed yesterday to attend the trial of her brother in Beijing, and to meet afterwards with her brother’s lawyers.  Outside the courthouse she called to journalists and diplomats, “I’m not free – tell everyone I’m not free.” 

“Ashton should be prepared to tell her Chinese government interlocutors who speak of the need for reform that a good start would be freeing Liu Xiaobo and lifting the appalling and abusive house arrest imposed on Liu Xia,” said Leicht.

Even the new leadership’s commitment to robustly grappling with rampant corruption – identified as a high priority – is already being called into question. In early April, eight activists were arrested for their involvement in a grass-roots anti-corruption campaign.

“Aspirations for human rights and the rule of law have become mainstream topics in today’s China, and those concerns should be at the core of any diplomatic agenda,” said Leicht. “Ashton must vigorously defend these – as the very values on which the EU was built – not soft-peddle them.”

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