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European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel participate in a media conference after a meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the European Council building in Brussels, March 9, 2020.   © 2020 AP Photo/Olivier Matthys

(Brussels) – European Union leaders should use the forthcoming EU-China summit to press for an end to Beijing’s grave and systemic human rights violations, Human Rights Watch said today. The 22nd EU-China summit will be held virtually, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, on June 22, 2020.

The EU council president, Charles Michel, and the commission president, Ursula Von der Leyen, should press the Chinese government to withdraw its proposed national security law for Hong Kong and to allow United Nations rights experts to investigate the situation for Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang. The EU should specify the consequences for bilateral relations with the bloc if Chinese authorities do not agree.

“The EU has many tools at its disposal to respond to the Chinese government’s brutal human rights violations,” said Lotte Leicht, EU director. “But will they make use of them or just continue to tick the box marked ‘raised concerns’?”

In recent weeks, the EU high representative for foreign affairs, Josep Borrell, has publicly expressed concerns over Beijing’s plans to impose national security legislation in Hong Kong in violation of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, which guarantees Hong Kong full autonomy except in foreign affairs and defense. On June 9, following talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in preparation for the summit, Borrell reported that there had been no progress on this or other human rights issues discussed.

Referencing his own remarks from a few weeks earlier, Borrell said at a news conference that the EU had been “too naïve” with China and emphasized the importance of “mutual trust” for bilateral relations. Several hours later, the EU called out China’s state media for giving a “selective and unbalanced account of the discussions.” 

Since the last EU-China summit in April 2019, Beijing has escalated its assault on human rights inside China. The government has resisted efforts to allow independent international investigations into gross human rights violations in Xinjiang. The authorities continue to arbitrarily detain over one million Uyghurs and other Muslims there under a policy that leaked documents show senior Chinese officials endorse. Journalists and researchers have also published credible allegations of forced labor implicating European companies working in the region.

In the early weeks of the Covid-19 crisis, Chinese authorities silenced whistleblowers and forcibly disappeared citizen journalists, facilitating the spread of the virus across China and beyond its borders. The EU has backed an “impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation” of the international response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

In June the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress announced that it would adopt national security legislation to be imposed immediately on Hong Kong. The law will prohibit overly broad offenses such as “sedition” and “subversion,” which will pose a serious threat to basic rights and freedoms of Hong Kong people. In mainland China, countless human rights defenders, lawyers, activists, and others – including an EU citizen, the Swedish bookseller Gui Minhai – have been arbitrarily detained, harassed, and imprisoned under similar legislation for their peaceful expression of views that the Chinese authorities perceive as criticism.

At the United Nations Human Rights Council, China advanced its resolution on “mutually beneficial cooperation,” a view of human rights that seeks to erase the idea of accountability for states from that body’s mandate and foresees no meaningful role for independent civil society. This action is consistent with China’s anti-rights agenda in the UN system, such as blocking access for independent organizations and manipulating the Universal Periodic Reviews of its human rights record.

The EU has repeatedly sought independent UN access to Xinjiang and publicly decried the enforced disappearance, detention, and imprisonment of human rights activists and lawyers, journalists, and other dissenters across China. While EU officials reportedly raise human rights concerns at high-level meetings with their Chinese counterparts, the EU has repeatedly failed to articulate consequences for China’s egregious rights violations, disregard of international law, stonewalling of UN human rights experts, and impunity for systemic, widespread, and grave human rights abuses.  

In a resolution adopted on June 19, the European Parliament said that the EU should take concrete action to counter Chinese government human rights violations. EU Parliament members from 27 member states urged the EU to impose targeted sanctions such as travel bans and asset freezes against Chinese officials responsible for the national security legislation in Hong Kong and mass arbitrary detentions in Xinjiang; a ban on exporting technology that could be used by Beijing to violate human rights; and for EU leaders to use any trade talks to insist on rule-of-law and human rights improvements. 

The resolution also said that the EU should work with like-minded countries to establish a UN special envoy for Hong Kong, to convene a so-called “Arria” briefing at the UN Security Council, and to consider legal avenues, including via the International Court of Justice (ICJ), to challenge Beijing’s actions vis-à-vis Hong Kong.

“EU leaders can’t just repeat the same lines and hope that they will somehow prompt different behavior by Chinese authorities,” Leicht said. “Real change requires being willing to take concrete action in the face of China’s magnitude of rights abuses and its assault on international law and institutions.”

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