European Union ambassadors OK human rights sanctions on China

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EU ambassadors on Wednesday agreed to a new package of sanctions on four Chinese individuals and one entity over human rights violations targeting the minority Uyghur Muslim population, according to multiple diplomats.

The penalties are part of a new sanctions package that will punish several countries over human rights abuses. The overall list includes 11 individuals and four entities in six countries, according to the diplomats. Among those facing punishments are two Russian individuals involved in alleged gay rights violations in Chechnya, according to one of the diplomats. The other sanctions will hit individuals and entities in Eritrea, Libya, North Korea and South Sudan.

The sanctions, consisting of asset freezes and travel bans, are being meted out under a new framework introduced last December, known as the “EU Magnitsky Act.” They are expected to be formally approved at a meeting of EU foreign minister on Monday.

The Chinese sanctions concern the Chinese government’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims in the western region of Xinjiang. Activists and U.N. human rights experts say at least 1 million Muslims are being detained in camps in the area. These activists and some Western politicians have accused Chinese officials in the region of torture, forced labor and non-consensual sterilizations. The U.S. has labeled the situation a “genocide,” a move followed by the Dutch parliament.

China has continuously denied the allegations, saying the country is trying to fight religious extremism.

China’s ambassador to the EU, Zhang Ming, said on Tuesday that his country’s “deradicalization centers” for Muslims in Xinjiang are “not entirely different” from those found in Britain, France and the U.S. He also warned that “sanctions based on lies could be interpreted as a deliberate attack on China’s security and development.”

The penalties will come on top of other EU sanctions targeting China. The bloc punished China last year over its cyber activities, penalizing a Chinese company and two Chinese individuals accused of having supported a cyber offensive, dubbed Operation Cloud Hopper, that attempted to pilfer commercially sensitive data from companies across the world. The penalties were rolled out in a package of measures that also hit Russia and North Korea over alleged cyberattacks.

But these new sanctions arrive only months after the EU struck an investment agreement with China, a deal that took more than seven years of negotiations and that has still to be ratified. Some Brussels lawmakers criticized the EU’s decision to agree on the pact as Beijing was being accused of numerous rights abuses, including a clampdown on democracy in Hong Kong.

Beijing has instituted a new law that weakens Hong Kong’s democratic system and departs from the “one country, two systems” principle the country agreed to in 1997, when Britain handed control of the territory back to China. Last summer the EU approved some mild penalties on China, including the restriction of extradition agreements, over Beijing’s crackdown in Hong Kong. And in a statement last week, the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, stressed that the bloc “will consider taking additional steps.”

In unclear what those steps might be, however. Some diplomats didn’t want to rule out further sanctions, but others stressed that the EU must first “fine-tune” its relation with China, finding the right balance between sanctions and investments.

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