Last week, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs published its annual report on human rights in the European Union. Among other things (including condemning the mass surveillance activities revealed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden) the 153-page publication slammed Europe for its “aggressive promotion” of gay rights.
Clearly the EU’s definition of “human rights” is not taken from the same dictionary as Russian President Vladimir Putin, who recently signed into law a ban on “homosexual propaganda” and has argued that Russia needs to “cleanse” itself of gays in order to increase its birth rate.
How should Europe respond to statements like this? Aren’t human rights supposed to be universal? Or should Europe take into account cultural and traditional differences in its dealings with the rest of the world? At least one of our commenters, Aleksander, argues that Europe needs to promote human rights more actively in other countries:
In my opinion, the EU should spearhead economic development in the world because – unlike other political world powers – it does respect human rights and liberties… For example, China, India or even the USA often put [economic] progress before ‘humanity’.
But is Europe really such a beacon of human rights around the globe? And even if it is, does an emphasis on human rights and freedom of expression hurt Europe’s economic relations with the rest of the world? The British Prime Minister, for example, last year distanced himself from the Tibet issue in order to mend relations with China, claiming the two countries had “turned a page” since David Cameron met with Dalai Lama in 2012 and angered the Chinese government.
There are also signs that China is anyway slowly reforming its approach to human rights. Last November, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a series of reforms, including relaxing China’s one-child policy and closing down its extensive network of forced labor camps. Do Europeans maybe have a biased and confused impression of the human rights situation in China?
We spoke to Ingrid d’Hooghe, Senior Research Associate at The Netherlands Institute of International Relations. She argued strongly that concerns over human rights in China were definitely justified:
However, we got a different response from Christopher Dent, Professor in East Asia’s Political Economy at Leeds University. He argued that China is such a vast country that the human rights issue is almost impossible for anybody to understand fully, even within the country. But he did think that Western media can often over-simplify and over-hype the issue.
And we got a different answer again from Cheng Weidong, a Professor at the European Studies Institute of the Chinese Academy for Social Sciences (CASS), who suggested that there is often misunderstanding and exaggeration in Western media about human rights in China. He argued that Europeans have to accept that the concept of human rights has to be adjusted to fit traditional cultures.
Finally, we spoke to Katharine Derderian, an Executive Officer dealing with EU Foreign Policy at Amnesty International. She highlighted several areas of great concern in China and responded to the comment from Aleksander by arguing that the EU definitely has a huge role to play in promoting human rights internationally.
Is Europe really such a beacon of human rights around the world? And even if it is, does an emphasis on human rights hurt Europe’s economic relations? Should Europe take greater account for cultural and traditional differences between societies? Or should it increase pressure on countries like China and Russia to reform? Let us know YOUR thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policy-makers and experts for their reactions.