Should the EU lift the arms embargo on China?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The EU may consider lifting its arms embargo on China in order to improve cooperation with the country, writes Vincent Metten from International Campaign for Tibet. However, he argues that the bloc ought to consider such a move in the context of human rights.

This commentary was authored and sent exclusively to EURACTIV by Vincent Metten, EU policy director for the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT).

"At the 16-17 December 2010 EU summit, EU [High Representative] Catherine Ashton submitted a strategy paper on the revision of major EU foreign policies, envisaging among others the possible lifting of the EU Arms Embargo on China imposed after the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 4 June 1989. According to media reports, the text mentions that the arms embargo is a 'major impediment' to a stronger Europe-China cooperation.

It would not be the first time that European member states have discussed the possibility to lift the arms embargo on China. Yet, it would not be the first time that there is no clear consensus among them towards a common EU decision on this matter.

In his 2009 report 'A Power Audit of EU-China Relations', Francois Godement explored some EU member states' reactions to the question of the arms embargo on China. Despite the [fact that the] majority of EU countries [are] sitting on the fence and would eventually follow a common EU policy, few countries seem to be clearly split into two groups: 'Lifting Supporters' and 'Lifting Opponents'.

Thus, it is likely that France, Italy, Malta and Spain fall into the first group, while Denmark, Germany, Sweden and UK fall into the second one. However, this new round of talks following Ashton's initiative is still at its early stage and there are no formal alignments to one of those groups.

The People's Daily Online reported that 'what China wants to gain from the EU is justice'. Well, we argue that what Europe wants to gain from China is justice too. Justice for the families of Tiananmen victims and freedom for those who are still jailed for their involvement in the Tiananmen Square events.

The same article [states] that 'although the world has changed a lot since that fretful time […] the European Union has been standing with the US on this arms ban'. But we argue again that, from a human rights perspective, China has not seriously addressed the grievances raised in 1989.

Former European Commissioner for External Relations Benita Ferrero-Waldner delivered a clear message regarding the link between human rights conditions in China and the embargo […] established by the EU. In January 2007 she told Premier Wen Jiabao that three conditions needed to be met before the EU could lift the embargo. China had to:

  1. Ratify the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR);
  2. free those jailed for their involvement in the Tiananmen Square events, and;
  3. abolish the 're-education through labour' system of imprisonment without trial ('laojiao' in Chinese).

There is, however, broad consensus that in fact human rights conditions in China have deteriorated in recent years, and there isn't any factual evidence that the three above-mentioned conditions have been met.

Other events in the lead-up to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, notably the Chinese government's crackdown on Tibet in early 2008 and in Xinjiang during 2009 summer, have raised serious concerns about China's objectives in those territories and, moreover, give sufficient proof of a lack of will to seriously engage in progress in the sphere of human rights.

The EU Arms Embargo on China is directly linked to the human rights situation in the People's Republic of China (PRC) and it has been used as a strong diplomatic tool in negotiations with China. Its underpinning has changed over the years from a response to a specific horrific event to demonstrable progress on human rights across China. Although it was not endorsed within the EU Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), it has become de facto an effective EU policy on human rights.

EU countries have refused to sell lethal arms to China for 21 years on the basis of the 1989 EU declaration, insofar as gross violations of human rights occur in the PRC. Thus, any debate on a possible lifting of the embargo is tantamount to establishing a specific policy on human rights and it would be perceived globally, including in China, in the context of human rights.

We firmly believe that the European Union should resist calls to lift its arms embargo until the Chinese government completes an independent public investigation of the crackdown and holds accountable those government and military officials responsible for the use of lethal force against unarmed civilians.

In addition, the EU should insist on a general amnesty for all those jailed for all forms of peaceful protest in China. Those convictions should be reviewed and overturned if there were procedural safeguards or lack of evidence of serious criminal acts."

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