Greece has vetoed a European Union condemnation of China’s human rights record at the UN, infuriating diplomats and rights organisations, who said the move undermined the EU’s position as a defender of human rights.
In a decision described as deplorable by some, it emerged on Sunday that Athens had refused to endorse an EU statement criticising the crackdown on activists and dissidents under the Chinese president, Xi Jinping. The statement was due to be submitted to the UN’s human rights council in Geneva last Thursday.
“We acted from a position of principle,” an official at the Greek foreign ministry told the Guardian. “There is an upcoming dialogue between the EU and China on human rights and we think that could be a more efficient and constructive way of delivering better results.”
Human rights groups including Amnesty International said it was the first time the EU had failed to make such a statement at the UN’s top rights body. Diplomats were especially piqued at the veto’s timing. Late on Thursday eurozone finance ministers in Luxembourg agreed to unlock €8.5bn (£7.4bn) in bailout loans, allowing Athens to avert default when it faces €7.4bn in debt repayments next month. “It was dishonourable, to say the least,” one EU diplomat told Reuters in Brussels.
The move not only undermined common efforts to confront abuses, but was seen as a blow to the EU’s own record as a defender of human rights. The statement is presented three times a year and often contains criticism that countries are unwilling to raise alone. The 28-nation bloc prides itself on being a beacon of human rights protection, taking a tough stance on issues ranging from LGBT rights to banning capital punishment and upholding press freedoms.
Despite modest improvements in some areas, Beijing has faced criticism for what Human Rights Watch has described as “the government’s systematic efforts to silence independent civil society voices”.
In HRW’s 2017 World Report, the organisation wrote of its fears for the future. “Under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, who will remain in power until 2022 and possibly beyond, the outlook for fundamental human rights, including freedoms of expression, assembly, association and religion, remains dire,” it said.
More than 16 human rights lawyers and activists – the victims of a nationwide sweep of human rights advocates in July 2015 – were still being detained and “were the clearest victims of the authorities’ hostility towards independent civil society”.
Greece’s decision was directly attributed to huge Chinese investments in the economically depressed country. China’s biggest shipping company, Cosco, bought a 51% stake in Piraeus, Greece’s largest port, for €280.5m last year as part of plans to make the country a shipping hub between Asia and eastern Europe.
Earlier this month Piraeus also teamed up with the port of Shanghai in a deal that will see goods and container shipping between the two soar. Beijing has also acquired a 51% share of Greece’s public power corporation’s grid operator.
Under the leftist government of Alexis Tsipras, the prime minister, Sino-Greek relations have improved dramatically in recent years, and senior communist party officials have made regular visits to Athens. During talks in the capital last week, Han Zheng, a member of the political bureau of the Communist party’s central committee, said China’s aim was to elevate the strategic partnership between the two countries “to a new level”.
By Helena Smith