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The EU-China Human Rights Dialogue: Perspectives from NGO Representatives

October 29, 2010

Catherine Barber and Corinna-Barbara Francis of Amnesty International, Antoine Madelin of the International Federation for Human Rights, Vincent Metten of the International Campaign for Tibet, and Sophie Richardson of Human Rights Watch appraise the dialogue process.

As part of their engagement efforts with China on human rights, governments have launched bilateral, predominantly closed-door, dialogue processes. Launched in 1995, interrupted in the spring of 1996, and resumed in November 1997, the EU-China Human Rights Dialogue is normally convened twice a year, alternating locations between the EU presidency capital and Beijing. Separate seminars are convened around the same time as the Dialogue for specialists and academics on topics such as the abolition of the death penalty and the ratification and implementation of international covenants. Additionally, practical cooperation projects including training lawyers and supporting disabled rights were also developed, some of which have lasted nearly ten years.

In light of complex political and economic factors that impact on China’s human rights policies and practices, it is important to avoid overly simplistic causal connections and conclusions between any one tool or process, such as the EU-China Dialogue, and human rights progress on the ground. In January 2001, the EU announced eight benchmarks for the EU-China Human Rights Dialogue that are relevant for assessing the impact of the Dialogue.

Although NGOs have played a constructive role in pressing for greater transparency and accountability of the process, their and other civil society groups’ participation in the EU-China Human Rights Dialogue Seminar process has been contested. Recently, Sharon Hom of Human Rights in China (HRIC) spoke with representatives of several NGOs: the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), Human Rights Watch (HRW), and, in a separate conversation, Amnesty International (AI). Each shared their experiences in engaging in the expert seminars that accompany the Dialogue sessions, and their insights concerning the dialogue process itself.

Origins of the EU-China Human Rights Dialogue

Sharon Hom/HRIC: FIDH has been monitoring and engaging the EU in its various dialogues, including with China, for some time. Antoine, can you kick off our discussion by providing some context for the Dialogue, the seminars, and their role as a human rights policy tool with regard to China?

Antoine Madelin/FIDH: I would begin with the June 1989 events. Following the government crackdown, the international community reacted in a strong manner, in particular, within the EU. Some EU member states deployed an arms embargo against the Chinese authorities and began developing a condemnation of the Chinese human rights record at the United Nations level—at the Human Rights Commission—which they pursued for several years. The Chinese authorities reacted very strongly against this and ultimately obtained a majority vote against a resolution.

Then, the EU decided to shift from a public, condemnatory resolution to a diplomatic, closed-door exchange of views with the Chinese authorities. The Chinese authorities unsurprisingly welcomed this new approach and agreed to engage in a dialogue, on the condition that the Chinese authorities would, as much as the Europeans, have their say on the topics for discussion, the participants to be invited, and the presentation of outcomes. This initiated the EU-China Human Rights Dialogue, which has now been running for more than 10 years.

The Dialogue has two different and complementary components. One, European and Chinese officials discuss behind closed doors human rights concerns in general as well as specific cases (a list of individual political prisoners, in particular). The second component is a legal seminar that was envisaged to feed and deepen the discussions in the Dialogue, wherein European academics and NGOs would have discussions with their Chinese counterparts—Chinese academics who have been identified by the Chinese authorities.

International Campaign for Tibet’s Participation, Expectations, and Message

Sharon Hom/HRIC: Vincent, can you tell us about International Campaign for Tibet’s and your participation in these seminars?

Vincent Metten/ICT: The latest seminar held in Madrid in June of this year was ICT’s first-ever participation in an EU-China Human Rights Seminar. Of course it’s an important step forward for our organization. But this was only possible because ICT recently became a member of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), and I was representing ICT under FIDH’s hat.

Sharon Hom/HRIC: Was ICT invited previously to these seminars?

Vincent Metten/ICT: ICT has, to date, never been officially invited. ICT repeatedly requested an invitation to past seminars but was never invited, despite the fact that we could have provided some relevant expertise to the discussions. The extreme sensitivity of the Tibet issue for the Chinese authorities is certainly a factor, although never cited as a reason. FIDH has been invited to these seminars and it designated ICT—an FIDH league member—to attend the last seminar as the FIDH representative.

Sharon Hom/HRIC: What did ICT expect to achieve through your participation in the seminar?

Vincent Metten/ICT: We are happy that the EU decided to make it possible for us to be present; this indicated to us that the EU is recognizing that we are a serious and reliable NGO in terms of information. We wanted to deliver some key messages on three levels: to the EU officials, to the Chinese officials and diplomats that were present, and to the Chinese academics. Another expectation was to increase our visibility in EU-China official events and interactions with Chinese participants.

Sharon Hom/HRIC: Can you elaborate on those key messages?

Vincent Metten/ICT: At the seminar, I first proposed to speak about the implementation of economic, social, and cultural rights in the Tibetan areas of the People’s Republic of China. But the organizers of the seminar asked me to focus my presentation on Europe. It was kind of nonsense for an organization focusing on Tibet to speak about Europe. So, the compromise solution, if I may put it that way, was to address the issue of economic, social, and cultural rights of minorities in general. So, one-third of my presentation focused on the situation of minorities in Europe and Belgium and two-thirds on China and Tibet.

On the situation of minorities in China, I mentioned the concluding observations of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination of September 2009,1 which highlights in a clear and direct way the discrimination, and the social and economic marginalization and exclusion, that ethnic minorities in the PRC face. I explained that China is clearly not meeting its international obligations on minorities’ rights and that state policies have failed to provide institutional protection or guarantee preservation of minorities’ unique cultures. I then listed some obstacles that have hindered progress and mentioned the concrete recommendations proposed by HRIC in the report China: Minority Exclusion, Marginalization and Rising Tensions2 to overcome these obstacles. I also cited the findings of the last report by ICT (A ‘Raging Storm’: The Crackdown on Tibetan Writers and Artists after Tibet’s Spring 2008 Protests3), which details the new wave of repression against Tibetan culture in which almost any expression of Tibetan identity not validated by the state can be branded as “splittist.” I also reiterated the need to implement genuine autonomy as expressed in the Tibetan Memorandum4 and that it is imperative that the right of Tibetans to govern themselves be recognized and implemented throughout the region in which they live in compact communities in the PRC, in accordance with the Tibetan nationality’s own needs, priorities, and characteristics.

Last but not least, I raised the issue of access to information, which is very strictly controlled and monitored by authorities, in particular by invoking the state secrets system. I then read some quotes on information control and the Internet from the uncensored April 29 report by Mr. Wang Chen, which he delivered in a speech before the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress.5 Mr. Wang is the highest government official responsible for managing online information in China and is also the Party’s top official in charge of external propaganda work. The English translation of the statement was provided to me by HRIC, which I would like to thank for the excellent contribution.

Sharon Hom/HRIC: Can you share with us the Chinese participants’ reaction to the presentation?

Vincent Metten/ICT: When I started reading my text a Chinese diplomat stood up and asked the moderator to stop the presentation. When the moderator asked me to continue, the diplomat left the room and closed the door loudly to show his dissatisfaction. But he came back during the Q&A part to criticize what he heard and to deliver some classic propaganda. Two academic participants present in the room joined him and criticized the content of my presentation loudly and, from time to time, emotionally. The trio made loud and aggressive comments in order to intimidate me. There was no space at all for any kind of rational dialogue and I was not given the floor back to respond to this wave of criticism. After the presentation, however, there was a lunch before the closing session. At my table there were some academics who were more open, and younger, who expressed an interest in increased dialogue on the issue of Tibet.

Sharon Hom/HRIC: Did you receive any other feedback or comments, either from the EU and Commission participants, or from the organizers, the Irish Centre for Human Rights at the National University of Ireland, Galway?

Vincent Metten/ICT: Not on my side. I just circulated my intervention to the European participants as we did not have the email addresses of any participant on the Chinese side, which is a pity. This shows how difficult it is to create interaction between the two groups. I asked representatives of Galway to circulate my text to the Chinese side, but I never received any answer. “Silence radio,” as you would say in French!

An Opaque Process

Sharon Hom/HRIC: At most international conferences, it is common to have the list of participants circulated so that people can maintain contact. But in these seminars, there appears to be great sensitivity to the exchange of basic information, such as the full list of participants, which would allow individuals to build on this event for ongoing exchanges.

Vincent Metten/ICT: I was told that the tradition is not to display any written information in or around the meeting place. The only documents that can be distributed are the presentations, which I couldn’t even do. So there is no way that you can put out some of your material, in particular if you are an NGO with certain controversial positions. This does not contribute to an open and transparent exchange of views.

Sharon Hom/HRIC: Yes, together with FIDH, we have been advancing suggestions for greater transparency and accountability of these exercises, including greater and more systematic distribution of papers, presentations, agendas, and other information. Through my own participation, I know that suggestions for more public access to the discussions came from the Chinese civil society participants as well. Even if there were no joint conclusions from the exercise, greater public access to the discussions might enable these seminars to produce greater impact, for example, so that Chinese academics and activists could leverage, reference, and build upon the discussions on a wide range of critical human rights issues.

Antoine Madelin/FIDH: Even at the UN—at the global level—the NGOs are allowed to participate in more meaningful ways: they are able to distribute documents, and register and file their interventions in the public domain and have them available globally. And the PRC adheres to these standards there. Yet, in the EU-China seminars, the NGOs are not allowed such opportunities. This is a major weakness of these seminars.

Sharon Hom/HRIC: What do you think was achieved at the seminar?

Vincent Metten/ICT: I don’t have a lot of experience as this was ICT’s first participation in a seminar (I hope not the last). There are today many initiatives trying to promote interactions, contacts, or synergies between European and Chinese civil societies. But one core issue is to organize events that bring together scholars, academics, lawyers, and representatives of NGOs in a way that allows open and frank exchanges of views as well as long-term interactions and links between participants.

I was positively surprised by the diversity of profiles and backgrounds of the Chinese academics. Some of them are much more open than others. Some are more fluent in English which made possible some limited interactions on the periphery of the formal meetings. Some of them are lawyers dealing with workers’ rights, for example, and you can feel that they are also fighting for the improvement of the conditions of some workers in their country. But the main problem is that the seminar is very closely monitored by Chinese diplomats. It limits the Chinese academics’ ability to express their viewpoints, as they know that what they say is carefully listened to. It is therefore impossible to speak freely, as least for the Chinese academics.

After this experience, I strongly believe that it is very important to keep a balanced presence between academics and NGOs, in order to allow some space for some more critical views. To conclude on this point, I would say that I am quite skeptical about this whole exercise, and that in my view, there are more negative points and outcomes than positive ones. The entire system and approach need to be reviewed, but this must be done via negotiation with the Chinese side, and I am not convinced that they are willing to improve the seminar.

Sharon Hom/HRIC: There have been so many constructive recommendations advanced. Why is it so hard to implement even the simple ones like developing a website to share information and resources from these seminars or strengthening the interactive structure of the actual seminars? Is it just a lack of political will or is there some other structural disincentive?

Antoine Madelin/FIDH: The chief impediment is that the EU is blocked by the Chinese, who share the decision-making for the organization of the seminars, from adopting these recommendations. And this has progressively inhibited EU initiatives to improve the seminars, for the sake of ensuring “successful” discussions.

Vincent Metten/ICT: It is not moving forward because Chinese authorities do not want there to be too much contact between the civil society in Europe and the civil society in China. The human rights lawyers and human rights defenders in China are increasingly repressed. It would be contradictory to have repression domestically in China and at the same time increased exchange and engagement between European and Chinese civil society abroad. At the opening session, I was sitting next to a Chinese academic who is active in the media area and we exchanged business cards with mutual big smiles. Aft er the fi rst break he changed his seat and moved 10 meters away from me. We did not have any other contact.

Role of Civil Society

Sharon Hom/HRIC: What is the role of civil society, in particular, the Irish Center for Human Rights at Galway, for example, which has been tasked with the actual organization of the seminars? What constraints are they operating under? What accountability do they owe since the seminars—and Galway’s role as organizer—are also being supported by public funds?

Vincent Metten/ICT: Galway is primarily an organizing body here and is limited by the political framework that is defined by the European Commission, and is influenced by EU interactions and relations with Chinese authorities. They are in a way stuck in that framework. I had the feeling that for them, a successful seminar is a seminar without any clash.

Antoine Madelin/FIDH: The decision to delegate the organization of the legal seminar to an academic institution was made by the EU to make sure that the choice of European participants would be more academically inspired and not be made in horse trades among the EU 27 member states. Galway, which had previously engaged with the EU on the legal seminars, won the call for proposals to organize the seminars. Yet, one could say that the contract was a “poisoned fruit”: it is by definition a very politicized seminar that the EU and China have set up. There is no room for Galway to move away from this politicized environment. Their objective thus becomes: to have a “successful” seminar, with no incident in organizing it.

Sophie Richardson/HRW: One of the biggest problems is that the European academics, most of whom are quite well respected in the fields they work on, are given an unexplained and impossible task: they are expected to give presentations that will resonate with Chinese academics, who either have no interest in or latitude to really take advantage of what the Europeans have to offer. At the same time, many of the European academics lack the China expertise to be able to focus in on the crux of the issue. Some of these people are very good but are not sure what to aim for. It would be more meaningful to have discussions relevant to the Chinese experience. For example, there was a pair of academics who compared the Treaty of Maastricht7 with the Treaty of Utrecht.8 This has no bearing on the Chinese experience. Nothing they said was remotely related to China.

You have to make sure that you don’t become the victim of a process but the actor with a purpose. The process, bringing people together and discussing, should not be the end in itself. The goal should be having an impact on human rights changes in China.-Antoine Madelin/FIDH

European academics are sufficiently aware of the politics of this situation to be uncomfortable, but not really to navigate it successfully or fight back in sufficient ways. I’ve been to four rounds, two in China and two in Europe. The most recent round in Madrid was by far the best one I’ve been to. But it was still not a real conversation about human rights abuses in China and how best to draw on the European experience to address them. One of the great frustrations has always been the difficulty in trying to elicit conversation about concrete issues that may lead to a recommendation.


Sharon Hom/HRIC: What did you hope would be accomplished? What were your expectations?

Sophie Richardson/HRW: Quite understandably, one has quite modest expectations for any discussions about human rights issues with representatives from the Chinese government or with academics when representatives from the Chinese government are present. There are a number of participants that are not well informed about China. The organizers of the event sometimes treat the human rights NGOs as problematic or unwanted. Our goals have been both to share our views about human rights issues from an international perspective and to try to engage with some of the Chinese academics and NGOs. I can’t say that it has really led to groundbreaking change with any of those communities in terms of progress on any of these issues.

Paradigmatic Moments

Sophie Richardson/HRW: The paradigmatic moment for me came in the last round when I asked a non-sensitive, hypothetical question related to what one would do if her personal information had been shared around in such a way that she was denied a job. What should that person do? I couldn’t even get an answer to that question. The speaker just went back to reading the talking points from his paper. And this was a fairly non-touchy issue. This happened right after Chinese academics just read the law and another woman gave the same presentation in three consecutive seminars in a row. This has been a persistent problem in these seminars: Where is the discussion?

Antoine Madelin/FIDH: For me, it was on the occasion of the Berlin seminar in May 2007, when at the opening of the seminar, the head of the Chinese delegation threatened that its delegation would leave the room if the representatives of HRIC and of the China Labour Bulletin were not disinvited, even though these participants were present and the list of participants had been shared with the Chinese weeks before they traveled to Berlin. The EU refused and the Chinese delegation walked out of the seminar, and that annulled the session. That moment when the head of delegation said that he would walk out, and the whole period when they were discussing the walk-out, were memorable. The Europeans were infuriated that they were put in a situation in which the authorities would walk out. Everyone waited for two to three hours to see what the decision would be. Many of the European academics began to question why they had been put in a situation in which the Chinese authorities would have to walk out. These hours nicely illustrate the dynamics we were all subject to.

Sharon Hom/HRIC: The Berlin seminar was indeed memorable. I was struck that many of the European academics and officials were not upset with the Chinese authorities for refusing to include NGOs that actually had expertise on the issues that were on the table. Instead, they were upset at the targeted NGOs for staying in the room. It was heartening that some Chinese participants came to me privately afterwards and asked about my cut-off remarks and even expressed regret that the authorities didn’t handle the situation well.

How to Improve the Seminars

Sharon Hom/HRIC: There appears to be very limited space for any kind of open exchange beyond focus on formal law or fairly non-sensitive issues. Given that, as NGOs, how should we assess the seminar as a tool? We’ve made all kinds of recommendations that are mostly ignored. Is there actually a space or potential for promoting human rights progress despite an extremely restrictive process? Is there something we’re missing?

Antoine Madelin/FIDH: If the seminars were organized with key basic changes, we could have much more interesting sessions with a broader political impact—conveying the message further, both to more people and to those higher up in the political sphere, at the EU level, that would lead to greater scrutiny of these seminars. There would be recommendations and follow-up. There is room for change, but that room is currently being negotiated between the Europeans and the Chinese. I doubt, however, that the discussions will be very successful.

Is there something we’re missing? Right now, the seminars are a waste of time and money. Right now, we—NGO participants—are not serving a purpose. There is no room for exchanges or follow-up. It’s a sophisticated démarche. It costs a lot of money and energy just for a sophisticated exchange of views. There is a very feeble impact despite the extensive funds and energy committed in organizing these seminars.

There could be other efforts. There is a goal to review all the EU strategy with China. We would need much stronger political backing to bring about a more meaningful outcome, such as detailed exchanges, detailed and publicly announced conclusions, public statements expressing disappointment at the lack of evolution of the human rights situations that are regularly raised in the Dialogue. Beyond the Dialogue, we could help each and every sector of the EU-China relationship—notably the trade, economic, and military sectors—to develop specific tools to ensure that their activities would have a positive impact on human rights on the ground in China.

Sophie Richardson/HRW: The seminars are difficult and not serving their desired purpose; at the same time, there are so few other options to pursue discussions with Chinese government representatives. The best thing you can do is actively pursue an opportunity to speak with Ministry of Foreign Affairs representatives—for example, over a meal—and try to introduce them to what our NGOs do and why we do it. I mentioned, every time, all of the organizations that ought to be there but have not been invited and explain what our purposes are. This doesn’t change the course of human history, but it does leave five more people with an awareness of what we do.

We’ve made a number of suggestions about how to improve the seminar. One in particular is that the EU should contemplate some sort of parallel session during which the international NGOs can talk directly with Chinese officials. We should step away from the faux academic discussion because, as currently structured, it will not produce a genuine academic exchange. So let’s make it what we want it to be.

Sharon Hom/HRIC: I participated in at least five seminars beginning in 2003, and, at the beginning, I was able to draw upon my limited political capital from my years of law teaching in China. In the margins of the formal sessions, I was also able to really engage in good exchanges with the Chinese civil society participants. Once, one of my former law students was moderating the session, and when the discussion got heated, I raised my hand, which put her in an awkward position whether to call on me or not. But I was also encouraged that the head of delegation at that time also made an intervention in support of a more respectful atmosphere for the discussion. This is just to underscore how each participant’s experience is affected by many factors.

Sophie Richardson/HRW: The Western participants who can speak Chinese obviously have more latitude to pursue discussions with some of the Chinese participants. We’ve consistently recommended that there should be more translators on hand so that when we have a discussion during breaks we can actually have an interpreter.

But I also think that at least one key purpose of the seminar—to consider steps that are appropriate to improve the human rights situation inside China—won’t be well-served until more of the European academics selected are ones who have some knowledge of China and can better navigate the shoals of these discussions. After all, there’s no shortage of European sinologists.

EU-China Human Rights Dialogue Benchmarks6
  • Ratification and implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).
  • Cooperation with human rights mechanisms (visits by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, invitations to other Special Rapporteurs, follow-up to recommendations from conventional mechanisms and recommendations by Special Rapporteurs, and implementation of the agreement with the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights).
  • Compliance with the United Nations Economic and Social Council guarantees for the protection of those sentenced to  death and restriction of the kinds of cases in which the death penalty can be imposed, in keeping with Article 6 of the ICCPR; and provision of statistics on use of the death penalty.
  • Reform of administrative detention; introduction of judicial supervision of procedures; respect for the right to a fair and impartial trial and for the rights of the defense.
  • Respect for the fundamental rights of all prisoners, including those arrested for membership in political opposition, unofficial religious movements, or other movements,; progress on access to prisoners in Chinese prisons, including in the autonomous regions; constructive responses to individual cases raised by the EU.
  • Untrammeled exercise of freedom of religion and belief, both public and private.
  • Respect for the right to organize.
  • Respect for cultural rights and religious freedoms in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), taking account of the recommendations of the committees of the United Nations covenants; halt to the “patriotic education” campaign in the TAR; access for an independent delegation to the Panchen Lama, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, who has been recognized by the Dalai Lama.
Role of Chinese Civil Society Organizations

Sharon Hom/HRIC: Chinese civil society organizations face a lot of difficulties in terms of funding and independence, which can be sensitive topics, especially at an international meeting with an official presence. I recall how, during one seminar, the moderator moved peremptorily to the next speaker without any discussion of an excellent presentation by a Chinese participant that included a frank description of these difficulties faced by Chinese civil society groups. I spoke up and suggested some discussion on the topic before moving on. Later, she privately thanked me for this support. So I think there is interest on the part of some participants to try to raise real issues and engage in discussion.

Sophie Richardson/HRW: One of my frustrations is that, as you watch these academics, you know that if they were presiding over these topics at their home universities, they would want to surface the differences and have the debate.

Sharon Hom/HRIC: What would you do differently to improve the situation?

Sophie Richardson/HRW: Some of the Galway staff people did attempt to accommodate some of the requests of the NGOs at the midpoint of the seminar, like allowing real time for discussion. We will obviously want to see more inclusive participation. But next time I would rather go back to giving a paper rather than moderating because it gives you control over what you put into the discussion.

Antoine Madelin/FIDH: Another problem with the EU-China seminar is that it is a low priority. It is not sufficiently politically supported at the higher level of the EU. When you think back to the Berlin seminar and the clash that came out of it, it had no political consequence in EU-China relations. So it’s really a dialogue that is pursued in a small box that is isolated from the rest of the EU-China relations. While we have very strong allies at the EU who help organize the seminar, the seriousness of the Dialogue’s challenges is progressively diluted at a higher level.

Message for Canadian and U.S. Governments

Sharon Hom/HRIC: All governments are balancing the same policy baskets of concerns—trade, security, and human rights. There is a challenge for all governments in making the commitment to the human rights basket concrete and real. Canada is about to celebrate, in 2011, the 40th anniversary of their relationship with China. And the U.S. has recently begun to move towards restarting its human rights dialogue with China, and has publicly announced there will also be a legal expert seminar. From the NGO perspective, what advice or warnings would you give to the U.S.?

Antoine Madelin/FIDH: You have to make sure that you don’t become the victim of a process but the actor with a purpose. The process, bringing people together and discussing, should not be the end in itself. The goal should be having an impact on human rights changes in China. These purposes have to be kept in mind at all times—in the definition and the organization of the seminars, and in the follow up to them. Time has to be taken into consideration. It’s a long process to obtain results and the element of time has to be taken into consideration in the way seminars are organized. Those responsible for organizing the seminars have to digest what was done in previous seminars so as to inspire future seminars, through appropriate conclusions that can be followed up on in future seminars. The overall process should be inspired by predefined benchmarks of change, which should be publicly shared, as well as the evaluation of their evolution.

Amnesty International’s Participation in First Seminars

Sharon Hom/HRIC: Can you describe Amnesty’s participation in the EU-China dialogue process and in the seminars? Do you recall the first one and its agenda?

Catherine Barber/AI: Amnesty has been involved from the beginning. I attended the initial sessions in Beijing with another colleague. I believe we have been invited to all subsequent sessions. At some point Amnesty became more selective, attending only when the substantive discussions assisted our priorities. When we didn’t attend, we sent briefings.

At the first session in Beijing we were simply given a chance to express our human rights concerns to a selection of Chinese officials in a curt meeting at the Foreign Ministry as a parallel event to the political dialogue itself. There was very little substantial response or interchange.

More useful sessions took place in the early years of the academic seminar. For example, there was one session with two focus areas—the death penalty and minority rights—that for me demonstrated some of the utility and drawbacks of the “dialogue” approach. Amnesty International was invited to give a speech about public opinion and the death penalty. And there were companion pieces from top international experts and Chinese academics. It was a lively discussion that provided us with some very useful engagement, both in the session and mainly during the sidebars. With academics, practitioners, and activists in the room, all could benefit from the exchange of analysis, challenges, and experiences.

The minority rights topic was proposed by the EU, which it believed to be a softer topic and so would engender more useful discussion. But it did not. Unlike on the death penalty, the Chinese interlocutors on ethnic minorities had not been so exposed to the international debates and critiques on this topic. There was next to no dialogue and instead increasing mutual incredulity to the end of the session.

Sharon Hom/HRIC: It’s interesting that at the beginning, there were NGO participation briefings and input, but that has since evolved into more of an academic exchange, with NGO participation fluctuating depending upon the desired level of civil society participation.

Catherine Barber/AI: In the initial session, I believe the European side brought NGO representatives largely to demonstrate that the human rights issues they were raising were not simply the purview and concern of governments and selected legal experts, but were shared by society more generally. The Europeans might have hoped the Chinese government would reciprocate. But eventually, the seminars turned into occasions for academic exchange with NGOs on the sidelines.

Involvement of Civil Society Groups Useful?

Sharon Hom/HRIC: Should this sort of human rights seminar involve civil society groups? Is it useful?

Corinna-Barbara Francis/AI: There are two main components within the EU-China Human Rights Dialogue: the political dialogue and the expert seminar. The seminar is meant to feed into and impact the political dialogue. If the larger goal of the Dialogue is to discuss and make progress in human rights on both sides, then I would think that having participants from civil society on both sides is key. The role of civil society and experts is really critical, not only in terms of providing expertise and information, but also in terms of impacting the political process. I don’t think that one can find the range of expertise on particular issues of human rights strictly within the government. Having the input from NGOs, academic experts, etc., is really essential.

Assessment of Seminars

Sharon Hom/HRIC: The seminars are generously funded by public funds. Given that the human rights dialogue process is meant to be a human rights tool, the discussion so far has also raised the issues of transparency and accountability.

Corinna-Barbara Francis/AI: There is a question of whether the investment is worth what comes out of it. This is a more massive issue related to the EU structure, which goes beyond human rights.

From an NGO perspective, the questions are: how can we make the best of this process and how can we push the EU to improve this process? How can we assure that the Dialogue is as transparent, open, and constructive as it can be? NGOs have played an active role in that capacity recently and they should continue to do so.

My own experience of the seminars recently has been that there is more attention placed on the format of the seminar to enable as great an engagement as possible. While there have been some improvements in the format, many weaknesses remain, including the issue of restrictions on NGO participation. And these issues really need to be addressed on the EU side for these discussions to be valuable.

Madrid: More Openness and Space for Engagement?

Corinna-Barbara Francis/AI: The EU side has made efforts to work on the format in this last round in Madrid so that the two sides could engage with one another. There was more time set aside for informal engagement that provided an opportunity to discuss issues with the China delegation directly. On the China side, there were some very good academics in terms of their independent-mindedness and their openness to talking to us. I think that was a positive thing that should be recognized.

Obviously there are other ongoing issues. In particular, the NGOs are pushing the EU to further improve the overall structure and format of the legal seminar and its relationship to the overall Dialogue. I think NGOs should continue to play that role in terms of advocating for fewer restrictions.

Sharon Hom/HRIC: Was the openness you experienced during the formal sessions or the informal interactions, where there is usually more openness?

Corinna-Barbara Francis/AI: It was a mix. Even though there was some hostility on the part of the Chinese participants, there was nevertheless real substantive exchange—even during the formal sessions—that brought some positive results. So I think that in the formal sessions, despite some predictable guarded reactions, there was still enough participation from the members of the Chinese delegation that made that engagement worthwhile. And in the informal sessions in particular there was enough space to engage with some of the newer participants.

I am aware that in the other sessions there were some unfortunate reactions that cut short some of the presentations. But according to some of the participants in that working group, there was still some space there for discussion. And in the panel that I was on [freedom of information], in both the formal and informal sessions, there was still some space for engagement.

Amnesty International’s Expectations

Sharon Hom/HRIC: What are Amnesty’s goals in participating in these seminars?

Catherine Barber/AI: The opportunity the Dialogue presents to speak directly to that small but significant audience is useful, but has never been the main driver of our participation. As a movement, we put as much effort into ensuring that the regular political dialogue is a motor for continuous international scrutiny of our human rights concerns.

The collective voice of concerned governments across the EU can often raise issues in ways that are more powerful than can be achieved through bilateral dialogues. Of course that is not always the case, and there is a need for regular assessment and pressure to prevent the collective approach from degenerating into the lowest common denominator.

Certainly for smaller EU countries, with significant relevant human rights experience to share, participation in the Dialogue boosts the rationale and impact of the resources they put into human rights activity relating to China. So it’s not the political dialogue in isolation, nor academic or expert engagement in isolation, but the combined initiative as a tool to maintain a strong living focus on human rights within the EU-China agenda. The dialogue process is simply one of many routes to potential influence. If it were the only route, the overall assessment over the lifetime of the Dialogue would I think be quite pessimistic.

Corinna-Barbara Francis/AI: There are many things we can critique about the human rights dialogues as a whole, such as a lack of measurable progress and lack of transparency, and there certainly are areas to be critiqued in terms of what these dialogues should be doing, given that they were initially put into place as a substitute for a more public process for addressing China’s human rights issues, including through the UN. But given that human rights dialogues are happening—and will continue—it is better for NGOs to engage with them than not to.


1. U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, “Consideration of Reports Submitted by States Parties under Article 9 of the Convention: Concluding Observations of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination: China (Including Hong Kong and Macau Special Administrative Regions),” U.N. Doc. CERD/C/CHN/CO/10-13 (2009), ^

2. Human Rights in China, China: Minority Exclusion, Marginalization and Rising Tensions (London: Minority Rights Group International, 2007), ^

3. International Campaign for Tibet, A ‘Raging Storm’: The Crackdown on Tibetan Writers and Artists after Tibet’s Spring 2008 Protests (Washington, DC: International Campaign for Tibet, 2010), ^

4. See Memorandum on Genuine Autonomy for the Tibetan People, November 2008, The memorandum outlines Tibetan aspirations and basic needs, including culture, religion, and education, and elaborates on facets of Tibetan autonomy. The document—presented by the representatives of the Dalai Lama to the government of the PRC during the eighth round of discussions on November 4-5, 2008—explains that Tibetan aspirations and genuine autonomy can be met and respected within the parameters of the Chinese constitution. ^

5. Wang Chen [王晨], “Concerning the Development and Administration of Our Country’s Internet” [关於我国互联网发展和管理], China Rights Forum, 2010, no. 2, ^

6. 2327th Council Meeting of General Affairs, Brussels, Belgium, January 22-23, 2001,  (“By making these matters [the benchmarks] public, the European Union wishes to make its human rights policy towards China more transparent and to pave the way for an exchange of information on the subject with civil society. The European Union urges China to contribute to this exchange too.”) ^

7. The Treaty of Maastricht on European Union was signed in Maastricht on February 7, 1992 and entered into force on November 1, 1993. The treaty created the European Union, introduced the concept of European citizenship, reinforced the powers of the European Parliament, and launched economic and monetary union. ^

8. The Treaty of Utrecht (also known as the Peace of Utrecht) was a series of treaties concluded among France, Great Britain, Portugal, Prussia, Savoy, and Holland in 1713 and 1715, which ended the War of the Spanish Succession. ^

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