Greece blocks EU statement on China human rights at UN

35th Session of the Human Rights Council. 12 June 2017. [UN Geneva / Flickr]

Greece has blocked a European Union statement at the United Nations criticising China’s human rights record, a decision EU diplomats said undermined efforts to confront Beijing’s crackdown on activists and dissidents.

The EU, which seeks to promote free speech and end capital punishment around the world, was due to make its statement last week at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, but failed to win the necessary agreement from all 28 EU states.

It marked the first time the EU had failed to make its statement at the UN’s top rights body, rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said.

A Greek foreign ministry official said Athens blocked the statement, calling it “unconstructive criticism of China” and said separate EU talks with China outside the UN were a better avenue for discussions.

An EU official confirmed the statement had been blocked.

“Greece’s position is that unproductive and in many cases, selective criticism against specific countries does not facilitate the promotion of human rights in these states, nor the development of their relation with the EU,” a Greek foreign ministry spokesperson said on Sunday (18 June).

Presented three times a year, the statement gives the EU a way to highlight abuses by states around the world on issues that other countries are unwilling to raise.

The impasse is the latest blow to the EU’s credentials as a defender of human rights, three diplomats said, and raises questions about the economically powerful EU’s “soft power” that relies on inspiring countries to follow its example by outlawing the death penalty and upholding press freedoms.

The EU urgently needs to review its Human Rights Dialogue with China

The EU’s well-meaning declarations on human rights in China must be followed up by a regular, high-level dialogue with Beijing. The degradation of human rights in Tibet must be systematically raised at each EU-China Summit, including the one planned in Brussels for 2 June, write a group of MEPs.

EU’s awkward ties with China

It also underscores the EU’s awkward ties with China, its second-largest trade partner, diplomats said.

Brussels has welcomed Beijing as an ally against US President Donald Trump in the fight against climate change and trade protectionism.

But as business ties grow, the bloc is struggling to speak out against a Chinese government crackdown on human rights lawyers and other activists since 2015.

China’s COSCO Shipping, owner of the world’s fourth-largest container fleet, took a 51% share in Greece’s largest port last year.

The Western Balkans have become China’s preferred access point to the EU, and a corridor to Europe’s north from the Greek port of Piraeus is being financed by Beijing.

‘Chinese Balkan corridor’ pits EU north against south

The Western Balkans have become China’s preferred access point to the EU, and a corridor to Europe’s north from the Greek port of Piraeus is being financed by Beijing. But Brussels fears EU rules will not be respected, while in northern countries, big ports resent the competition.

Hungary, another large recipient of Chinese investment, has repeatedly blocked EU statements criticising China’s rights record under communist President Xi Jinping, diplomats said.

One EU diplomat expressed frustration that Greece’s decision to block the statement came at the same time the International Monetary Fund and EU governments agreed to release funds under Greece’s emergency financial bailout last week in Luxembourg.

“It was dishonourable, to say the least,” the diplomat said. The Greek foreign ministry spokesperson said that “during the formulation of the common statement there were also other countries that expressed similar reservations” and that Greece participates on an equal footing in setting up the EU’s common foreign policy.

China reiterates pledge to support Greek economy

China signalled it would buy bonds when Greece issues debt again, in a show of support for a financially-stricken nation that hopes to become a gateway into Europe for Chinese products.