(Brussels) – The European Union-China human rights dialogue will have extremely limited utility without clear benchmarks for China’s progress and consistent pressure from the highest levels of European governments, Human Rights Watch said today. The 34th round of the dialogue is scheduled to take place in Beijing on November 30, 2015.

“Once again the EU and its 28 member states are failing to leverage the human rights dialogue as part of a larger strategy for change,” said Lotte Leicht, EU director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead the dialogue remains a comfortably low-level exercise where the EU can say it is nominally challenging China over human rights concerns, and where China can claim it is willing to discuss human rights issues with the EU – with no true pressure for reform.”

The 34th EU-China human rights dialogue comes at a time of serious human rights erosion in China. Since the last dialogue was held in December 2014, Chinese authorities have detained women’s rights activists for planning to peacefully raise awareness about sexual harassment; allowed prominent Tibetan monk Tenzin Delek Rinpoche to die in prison and then refused to release his body or conduct an investigation; and continued to detain on baseless charges elderly journalist Gao Yu, human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, and Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti. Between July and September 2015, authorities across the country detained about 280 human rights lawyers and activists; more than 40 remain in detention or disappearance.

The EU has issued statements expressing concern about some of these developments, including at the United Nations Human Rights Council. Some senior European officials, including European Council President Donald Tusk, have made reference to specific human rights concerns, such as China’s use of the death penalty or the situation in Tibet, at public events. In November 2015, EU Special Representative for Human Rights Stavros Lambrinidis visited China for a week, noting that “Rule of law requires lawyers that can practice freely without fear of persecution and provide checks and balances against the miscarriage of justice.”

But other senior officials, including EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, failed to publicly raise human rights issues on the occasion of a May 2015 EU-China security dialogue.

“Occasional statements and private diplomacy will not cause Beijing to change course or amount to a committed strategy to achieve progress on human rights and the rule of law,” Leicht said.

In order to be truly effective, and to implement the EU’s own Strategic Framework on Human Rights and Democracy, adopted in June 2012, the EU must clearly articulate its concerns and set out transparent benchmarks for advancing human rights in China. Being transparent about concerns and asks is critical as a means to ensure that EU messaging reaches not just Chinese government officials, but also people across China. Transparency is also crucial to EU accountability in Europe, Human Rights Watch said.

All EU member states should commit to pressing their Chinese counterparts on the same human rights concerns and asks, and if and when these benchmarks are not met, raise them at the highest levels of government as pledged in the EU Strategic Framework.

The benchmarks should include the immediate and unconditional release of those imprisoned for their peaceful activities, including persons advocating against corruption, for women’s rights, or for legal accountability and defense, as well as journalists, religious leaders, and representatives of ethnic minority communities who try to address wrongdoing. The Strategic Framework states that the EU will “throw its full weight behind advocates of liberty, democracy, and human rights throughout the world.”

“Senior EU officials now say they have a ‘mature’ relationship with China. Presumably that’s one that can withstand a factual, assertive EU position on human rights,” Leicht said. “For 33 rounds Chinese officials have thrown plenty of weight into resisting change – it’s up to the EU to show tenacity, principle, and strategic thinking in helping reverse the downward spiral for human rights in China.”