Leaders accused of putting trade before rights at summit

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The Independent Online

Fifty human rights groups have accused European Union and African leaders of putting trade links before the humanitarian crisis in Darfur at their summit in Lisbon this weekend.

As Robert Mugabe slipped quietly into the Portuguese capital on Thursday night after the EU lifted his visa ban, protesters condemned the meeting's organisers for failing to dedicate special sessions to Darfur and Zimbabwe. In a letter to the heads of state from the two continents, 40 members of African and European parliaments expressed "surprise and disappointment" that Darfur was not on the agenda.

Glenys Kinnock, the Labour MEP, said: "MPs, campaigners and human rights activists are all asking the same question: how can our leaders ignore one of the world's worst crises? Especially when [Sudanese] President [Omar Hassan al-] Bashir, the man primarily responsible for so much of the suffering, is in their midst."

Actors dressed as Mugabe and Bashir and the French and German leaders Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel climbed into a giant bed near the summit as protesters urged the leaders to "wake up" to human rights abuses in Africa.

Reed Brody, a spokesman for Human Rights Watch, said: "At a time when the future of the hybrid peacekeeping mission is at risk, for this meeting not to have Darfur on its agenda is a betrayal of the people suffering."

Critics claimed the EU was more concerned about combating China's growing economic presence in Africa by fostering trade links than using the first such summit in seven years to pressure the Sudanese Government over Darfur.

Portugal, which holds the EU's rotating presidency, rejected the criticism. "There will be no taboo subjects," said Joao Gomes Cravinho, its secretary of state for foreign affairs. He said good governance and peace and security were on the summit's agenda. However, Europe is keen to counter China's influence in Africa. Activists accuse the Chinese authorities of turning a blind eye to human rights abuses on the continent. China's trade with Africa is expected to exceed 47bn (34bn) this year.

The EU remains Africa's biggest trading partner with trade worth almost 150bn last year and Africa is the EU's biggest aid recipient.

In Britain, the political row over Gordon Brown's decision to boycott the Lisbon summit because of Mr Mugabe's presence rumbled on. Clare Short, the former international development secretary, claimed that Baroness Amos, another former cabinet minister, had been chosen to represent Britain because she is black.

Ms Short, now an independent MP, told BBC Radio: "I'm afraid that there really isn't any other explanation ...it's not right to send her because she's black."

David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, said in reply that Lady Amos knew the issues involved and would be an effective representative for Britain. "I think that is a bit insulting to Baroness Amos," he said. "She is a former secretary of state for international development, she is a former leader of the House of Lords. I think she will be a very good advocate for the UK."

William Hague, the shadow Foreign Secretary, said: "It is a shameful episode for Europe that President Mugabe is to be feted in Lisbon.

"Whilst I support the Prime Minister's decision not to attend, now Mugabe is there, it is important that Lady Amos lays his crimes bare before those attending."