Constructive Engagement and Human Rights: The Case of EU Policy on China

Egan, Annabel
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Since the European Commission released its first communication on relations with China in 1995, together, human rights diplomacy and human rights assistance, in the form of EU funding for rights-related technical cooperation projects, have defined the EU approach to 'constructive engagement' with China on human rights. This study provides an analysis of the arguments put forward by the institutions of the EU in defence of the choices that have been made in constructing this policy approach. It is guided by the following research question: how has the EU justified its human rights policy on China and are the arguments put forward themselves coherent? The promotion of human rights is but one of many competing and sometimes conflicting objectives of EU external relations policy. Given the need for prudential trade-offs between objectives, it is argued that the process of justification plays a key role in maintaining the legitimacy of any human rights policy. The following hypothesis proceeds from this argument and is developed in order to address the central research question. The overarching justification for EU human rights policy on China is based on arguments of morality and values. The choice of particular policy instruments has, however, been repeatedly justified on the basis of their effectiveness. Any failure on the part of the EU to either demonstrate the results of these policy choices or justify their absence will result in a loss of legitimacy, undermining the credibility of the EU as a human rights actor. On the basis of an analysis of public declarations from the EU over a period of more than two decades the following answer to the central research question is offered: the arguments put forward by the EU in defence of its human rights policy on China lack coherence and are not sufficient to justify the choices made in formulating and implementing it. The conclusion is also reached that, as proposed by the hypothesis, in the absence of demonstrable results, core policy choices justified by the EU on grounds of their effectiveness have suffered a loss of legitimacy which threatens to undermined not only the credibility of the EU as an external human rights actor but also the entire 'European construct' which has identified the EU as a community based on human rights principles.
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Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Ireland