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3rd Mar 2024

Ashton to face MEPs' questions on human rights

EU high representative for foreign affairs Cathy Ashton is to face tough questions from MEPs next Wednesday (15 December) over her strategy to promote European human rights values through the bloc's new external action service.

On the same day as Norway's Nobel Prize committee handed this year's prestigious award to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo in absentia, European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek said he was keen to hear how Ms Ashton intended to work in the field.

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  • Buzek and Ashton. The Nobel and Sakharov prizes are being collected in absentia (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

"Today is a sad day for human rights defenders," Mr Buzek said in a statement on Friday (10 December). "Instead of going to Oslo to receive his Nobel Peace Prize, he [Mr Liu] is still in prison while his wife is under house arrest."

The Polish politician who campaigned hard against Communism in his country throughout the 1980s insisted it is the EU's duty to take the lead in the defence of human rights.

"Next Wednesday in Strasbourg we are expecting to hear from Baroness Ashton how she intends to implement the commitments she made on this matter during the negotiations leading up to the establishment of the EEAS," he said.

Ms Ashton has faced criticism from a number of MEPs for not attending Friday's award ceremony in Oslo although her spokesman insisted she had not been officially invited. Beijing has conducted an intense diplomatic campaign in recent weeks to dissuade international diplomats from showing up.

EU accession candidate Serbia appeared to reverse an initial decision not to attend, after earlier statements that relations with China were more important than human rights raised a number of eyebrows in Brussels.

At the same time, Beijing has distanced itself from a human rights award recently set up by a Chinese civil society group in an apparent attempt to counteract the Nobel award.

On Thursday the Confucius Peace Prize appeared to fall flat when the winner, former vice-president of Taiwan Lien Chan, failed to turn up, with an unnamed six-year old girl collecting the prize money instead.

"It's a farce," one Chinese official in Brussels told this website on condition of anonymity. "It's not meaningful at all. They are a very low-key organisation."

Despite Beijing's deep opposition to this year's Nobel prize being giving to Liu Xiaobo, the Communist regime had nothing to do we the competing award, insisted the official. "On the government level, if we tried to off-set the Nobel award like that it would be very stupid and naive," they said.

Cuba looks set to follow China's example next week, with the regime on Raul and Fidel Castro so far giving no indication they will allow Cuban dissident Guillermo Farinas to travel to Strasbourg to collect the 2010 Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought, parliament's most important prize in the human rights field.

"Remember that they consider us to be 21st Century slaves without freedom of movement," Mr Farinas said of the Cuban regime in October, while speaking to EUobserver by phone.

MEPs questions next week are likely to focus on how Ms Ashton intends to counteract these apparent breaches of civil liberties, with parliament's subcommittee on human rights also set to present its annual report on the subject, drafted by centre-right MEP Laima Andrikiene.

In a letter sent earlier this week, a collection of former EU leaders and commissioners urged Ms Ashton to take stronger against Israel after settlement building recently restarted on Palestinian land.

The group, which includes Ms Ashton's predecessor Javier Solana, urged the EU to impose sanctions for breaking international law, but the EU top diplomat's reply suggest sanctions are unlikely.

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