China: EU Leaders Should Confront Xi on Rights

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The EU needs to unite not just on pan-European trade deals but also on a principled and publicly articulated human rights message. The means of doing so are right there in the EU’s own plans – but the EU’s senior officials keep ducking this obligation with China, and in doing so, weakening their position.

Lotte Leicht, EU director

(Brussels) – The EU’s leaders should publicly raise concerns about the shrinking space for rights advocates in China with President Xi Jinping, Human Rights Watch said in a letter today to Jose Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, and Herman Van Rompuy, the European Council president. Xi will make his first visit to Brussels as China’s president on March 31, 2014.

Barroso and Van Rompuy should fulfill their obligations under the European Union’s Strategic Framework on Human Rights and Democracy by publicly raising human rights issues with Xi. They should emphasize the need for China to respect free expression, association, and assembly, and pay tribute to those exercising their rights peacefully in China.

“The EU needs to unite not just on pan-European trade deals but also on a principled and publicly articulated human rights message,” said Lotte Leicht, EU director at Human Rights Watch. “The means of doing so are right there in the EU’s own plans – but the EU’s senior officials keep ducking this obligation with China, and in doing so, weakening their position.”

The 28 EU member states and EU institutions should use their combined leverage and speak with one voice to press China to release activists, journalists, lawyers, trade unionists, and religious practitioners imprisoned or detained solely for peaceful dissenting views and actions.

Some EU officials have individually made strong statements about human rights in China, including the remarks by EU High Representative Catherine Ashton about the recent death of the human rights defender Cao Shunli. But as long as those concerns are not being pressed by all EU member states at the most senior levels, they can be understood as merely serving EU home constituencies and will have little impact on the government in Beijing.

The EU should robustly pursue the obligations set out under its Strategic Framework and Action Plan. There has been little discernible action to apply either of these vehicles to the situation in China.

The landmark EU Strategic Framework on Human Rights and Democracy, adopted by EU foreign ministers in June 2012, commits the EU to placing “human rights at the center of its relations with all third countries including strategic partners” and also to raising “human rights issues vigorously in all appropriate forms of bilateral dialogue, including at the highest level.”

President Barroso and President Van Rompuy should, among other steps:

“The EU is grappling with the fallout of repressed dissent and denials of human rights in other parts of the world, and these problems are no less acute with respect to China,” Leicht said. “If the EU means what it says about China at the Human Rights Council, it needs to prove it by taking that message and carrying it across member states and at the highest levels of government.”

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