Activists Question Value of EU-China Rights Talks

Talks between China and the EU have prompted sharp criticism of Europe’s lack of forcefulness on human rights. Some critics claim that the dialogues allow China to give the appearance of engagement while effectively marginalising the issue. From EU Observer:

EU foreign relations spokesman Michael Mann said the talks get results despite the problems: “Normally, it achieves better treatment in prison, access to doctors and medication, non-use of torture. Twice the individual was released well before the end of his term in prison. We also receive useful information about [detainees'] whereabouts [and] offences that they were charged with.” He declined to name the two people released early.

But for its part, Human Rights Watch is sceptical.

“It looks great on paper. But there is no transparency. There are no benchmarks and no opportunities for public input or oversight,” the NGO’s rapporteur on China, Phelim Kine, told EUobserver. “The talks are used as a public relations exercise that allow the EU to isolate human rights issues from other top-level negotiations.”

A diplomat from one large EU country backed him up. “When [EU foreign relations chief] Ashton or [EU Council President] Van Rompuy go out there, how much are they really willing to tackle these difficult issues? When Van Rompuy goes out there and doesn’t engage on human rights, he undermines what we are trying to do in the consultations,” the contact said ….

Given the broad decline in civil liberties, Human Rights Watch’s Kine said the hush-hush format of the EU-China meetings has manifestly failed: “Nobody is willing to stand up and say: ‘Look – the emperor has no clothes!’ … History shows that the Chinese government only responds when there is public pressure, when it is embarrassed on the international stage.”

The Telegraph’s Peter Foster asks, “Why are Europe’s politicians so mealy-mouthed about China’s human rights?“:

Compared to how the US does these things – the US envoy Michael Posner held a forthright press conference at the US Embassy and warned of a “serious backsliding” on human rights in China when he came in April – the European showing is positively furtive.

It’s not clear why this is – perhaps they’re scared of Chinese reprisals (no more Eurobond buying!), or maybe the member states can’t agree on a line, or perhaps it’s simply that the new EU foreign service is too chaotic and half-built to handle these things with confidence – but such public reticence is a mistake ….

A Chinese blogger and free-speech advocate I was speaking to recently was baffled and angered by Europe’s feebleness when compared to the US.

“I don’t understand why Europe doesn’t stand up for its beliefs like America; you Europeans don’t have much to offer economically any more [a common perception here, even thought the EU is China’s largest trading partner], so if you surrender your values, and the lessons of your history, what do you have left?”

See also a post on the China-EU talks at Human Rights Watch’s site.