Trade and human rights in China: The EU must take action

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

china_human_rights_march.jpg [Pierre Pouliquin/Flickr]

During a visit to Beijing in October, the EU’s Trade Commissioner emphasised the importance of strengthening the rule of law in China. This must be followed up with action, write four human rights organisations.

This opinion-editorial is co-signed by the International Federation for Human Rights, the China Labour Bulletin, Human Rights in China and the International Campaign for Tibet.

It has been decades that our organisations have advocated for a stronger EU stance on human rights in China. Therefore, it is with interest that we welcomed the public positioning by EU Commissioner Cecilia Malmström during her recent trip to China.

At the beginning of October, Ms. Malmström insisted during her meeting with the Chinese Minister of Commerce on the importance the EU attached to China’s strengthening of its rule of law. The Commissioner insisted on the importance of China strengthening the independence of its judiciary, allowing lawyers to operate freely, and ensuring the internet as a vehicle for free expression.

This statement by EU Commissioner is key to our eyes. It is the first time we have noticed such a call during high-level trade negotiations. The EU has in 2012 committed to “integrate the promotion of human rights into trade”, but until now this commitment had remained conceptual. Now, finally this commitment has been articulated in a clear manner with China.

However, our organisations will not contempt themselves with such a call if it remains a vague position of principle. The EU Commissioner has now the obligation to take decisive steps to ensure that the investment negotiations under way with China do not negatively impact human rights.

In order to do so, we expect Ms. Malmström to: carry out a human rights impact assessment (HRIA) of the upcoming EU-China investment agreement; encourage human rights reforms in China during investment negotiations; introduce human rights safeguards and dedicated mechanisms to address human rights challenges and impacts in any future EU-China investment agreement; revise investment protection clauses and mechanisms to avoid negative impacts on the respect of human rights.

More generally, our organisations call on the EU to enhance human rights safeguards and revise the EU model of investment agreements. FIDH provided specific recommendations in the context of the recently negotiated EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement. It notably called for the inclusion of redress and accountability mechanisms for affected communities and for the possibility to remove protections offered to investors when they contravene international human rights standards and laws.

Let’s keep in mind that, as we write these words, 293 lawyers, law firm staff, and human rights defenders are being detained, arrested, held incommunicado, summoned, or otherwise have their freedom temporarily restricted in China. The country ranks 176 out of 180 countries in the 2015 World Press Freedom Index. A set of legislation already adopted or in the making in the areas of national security, counter-terrorism, cyber-security and NGO management is foreseen to further restrict the activities of the civil society and to further facilitate the authorities’ persecution of minorities (including minorities like Tibetans and Uyghurs).

In such a context, this civil society will have even harder time than now to properly monitor the impact of investment projects on human rights and seek remedy. The EU, therefore, has an enormous responsibility in ensuring that the inclusion of human rights in its trade policy with China is more than just a position of principle.

Subscribe to our newsletters