A coalition of human rights groups said it was the first time in a decade that the European Union has not made its collective voice heard during the U.N. Human Rights Council meeting.
But it was only the latest in missed opportunities this year.
In March, Hungary — another big destination for Chinese investment — prevented the European Union from adding its name to a joint letter expressing concern about reports of lawyers in China being tortured in detention, diplomats said.
At a summit in Brussels on June 1-2, E.U. Council and Commission presidents did not forcefully condemn China’s deteriorating human rights situation in public, nor call for the release of political prisoners, including E.U. citizens, according to rights groups.
The European Union also did not mark the 28th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4.
“On three occasions over three weeks the EU demonstrated no intention, compassion, or strategic vision to stem the tide of human rights abuses in China,” Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, said in a joint statement with six other groups.
The European Union has given no official explanation for its apparent retreat on human rights.
Reuters reported that a Greek foreign ministry official had described the proposed statement as “unconstructive criticism of China” and said separate E.U. talks with China outside the United Nations were a better avenue for discussions.
“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 E.U.,” a Greek spokesman told Reuters on Sunday.
China’s COSCO Shipping, owner of the world’s fourth-largest container fleet, took a 51 percent stake in Greece’s largest port last year. China is also a major investor in Hungary, with Budapest styling itself as China’s gateway to Europe, and Prime Minister Viktor Orban warning European leaders not to lecture China about human rights.
On Monday, China welcomed the Greek move, saying it opposed the politicalization of human rights issues, and the interference of human rights issues in the internal affairs and judicial sovereignty of other countries.
“As for the internal discussions among the E.U. countries, I do not know the details,” spokesman Geng Shuang said at a regular news conference. “Here I can only say that we appreciate the correct position taken by the relevant E.U. country.”
The European Union’s failure to speak out comes amid concerns the United States under President Trump will turn a blind eye to human rights abuses in China.
On Sunday, Natalie Nougayrede, a columnist for the Guardian newspaper, argued that Europe had a key role in defending “liberal democratic values” around the world as the United States retreated and Britain became less relevant.
Yet Europe’s defense of those values appears less than solid, especially when it comes to China, a major investor and the group’s second-largest trading partner, experts say. The European Union has also courted China as a potential partner in the battle against climate change and to defend free trade globally, as the United States moves in the opposite direction under Trump.
The joint statement by seven human rights groups called on the European Union to suspend its annual human rights dialogue with China — the forum to which the Greek spokesman was referring, and the next round of which is set to take place in Brussels on June 22-23.
That forum has deteriorated into a “meaningless low-level exercise,” lacking clear benchmarks for progress, the human rights group said, arguing that the European Union lacks both strategy and credibility to bring change.
“The E.U.'s failure to speak out on Beijing’s rights violations is a body blow to independent activists across China and a betrayal of the E.U.’s proclaimed human rights commitments,” said Iverna McGowan, head of European Institutions Office at Amnesty International. “Instead of a forum for promoting rights, the E.U.-China human rights dialogue has become a cheap alibi for E.U. leaders to avoid thorny rights issues in other high level discussions.”
One E.U. diplomat was reported to have expressed frustration that Greece’s decision to block the statement came at the same time the International Monetary Fund and E.U. governments agreed to release funding under Greece’s emergency financial bailout last week in Luxembourg.
“It was dishonorable, to say the least,” the diplomat told Reuters.
But China's Global Times newspaper welcomed the Greek stance, quoting Chinese experts as arguing that the country focuses more on improving living standards, which requires “a stable social order that comes with some restrictions,” while the European Union focuses more on political rights and freedom.