EU delegates accused of treating human rights as side issue at China summit

China will invest in the European Union's project for satellite navigation and will send more tourists to Europe.

The announcements yesterday were made after an EU-China summit in Beijing that paid little attention to human rights concerns. The centrepiece of the meeting was the signing of an agreement for China to join the EU's project to build a satellite radio navigation system, Galileo, to rival the US-run GPS system. China is taking a ¤200m (£137m) stake in the project. Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian Prime Minister, who led the EU delegation, said the deal was "a quantum leap in terms of co-operation between the two areas".

The summit was the first that the EU has held with Beijing's new leadership since it took power this year. The Chinese delegation was led by Wen Jiabao, the Prime Minister. President Hu Jintao, also met the EU delegation, which included Javier Solana, the EU's foreign affairs chief.

The two sides initialled an agreement on visas to make it easier for groups of Chinese tourists to travel to Europe. Approved Chinese travel agencies will be given preferential treatment for visas, provided their holidaymakers all return to China. The summit also agreed to set up an annual dialogue on industrial co-operation.

As for China's domestic policies, both sides "agreed to continue their ongoing dialogue on human rights on the basis of equality and mutual respect".

This will not be enough to satisfy human rights campaigners, who have been demanding that the EU increase pressure on China to improve the protection of civil and political rights. Before the summit, Amnesty International declared that the new Chinese leadership had failed to grapple with "basic legal and institutional weaknesses", which allowed serious human rights violations.

Amnesty International lists among its concerns the use of the death penalty in China's "strike hard" campaign on law and order, the use of detention without charge or trial, and the repression of Buddhist monks in Tibet and of the Falun Gong spiritual movement.

The campaign group Human Rights Watch has been publicising China's treatment of those suffering from HIV/Aids, including a cover-up of the spread of infection by state-run blood collection centres. It also cites repression of those campaigning for autonomy in Xinjiang and for trade union rights.

Lotte Leicht, director of the Brussels office of HRW, said that the EU's human rights dialogue with China was being treated "as a side issue", and kept apart from meetings where trade was discussed.

There will be a renewal of the human rights dialogue at the end of next month when officials from both sides will meet, as they do every six months. But HRW wants the dialogue upgraded from officials to politicians. "We need to move to a higher political level," Ms Leicht said.

The idea was partly endorsed by EU foreign ministers last month when they recommended establishing the EU-China dialogue on human rights "at the appropriate political level on an ad hoc basis".

But the summit conclusions show the EU has failed to persuade China of the merits of such an upgrade. Diego de Ojeda, a spokesman for the European Commission, defended the existing dialogue. It remained, he said, "the best instrument" to improve human rights in China. The summit had accepted the need for "more meaningful and positive results on the ground".

A policy statement prepared by the Chinese government before the summit said: "China-EU relations now are better than at any time in history."

Both sides said China-EU relations showed "increasing maturity", in an agreed statement issued yesterday. The statement applauded China's growing role in international relations, particularly its role in controlling nuclear proliferation in the Korean peninsula.

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