For most years since the bilateral human rights dialogue between the European Union and China was established in 1995, a key component of the dialogue has been the annual legal seminar designed to facilitate non-governmental exchanges on issues related to human rights and rule of law. These seminars, held each year in the capital of the country holding the EU presidency at the time of the biannual dialogue round, open up the dialogue process to participants from academia and civil society from both China and the EU.

This year’s EU-China legal seminar, which was scheduled to be held in Berlin on May 10 and 11, was cancelled when the two sides failed to agree on the roster of invited participants. The Dui Hua Foundation had been invited to participate in the Berlin seminar but had its invitation withdrawn less than one week before the seminar was set to open. Few seminar participants were aware of the events surrounding Dui Hua’s forced withdrawal from the seminar, and it was barely noticed in the few accounts of the seminar’s eventual cancellation that have appeared in public.

An Invitation Withdrawn

The invitation sent to Dui Hua in early April marked the first time the foundation had been invited to participate in the annual legal seminar and reflected, in large part, Dui Hua’s growing relationship with the EU and its member countries that have human rights dialogues or exchanges with Beijing. (Although Dui Hua is not based in Europe, the EU does occasionally invite non-EU organizations with particular expertise on China to participate in the seminar.) For its submission to the seminar, Dui Hua contributed a paper as part of the working group on the right to a free trial and opted to highlight the issue of expanding public access to trials and court documents as an integral part of safeguarding those rights. This topic was chosen in part because of Dui Hua’s experience attending trials and attempting to obtain court documents, both of which have been covered in previous issues of Dialogue. (Public Access and the Rights to a Fair Trial in China is an abridged version of Dui Hua’s seminar contribution.)

Having submitted its paper and begun preparations to travel to Berlin, Dui Hua was stunned when, less than one week before the seminar’s open, it was informed by email that the EU had rescinded Dui Hua’s invitation following discussions between the European Commission, the German foreign ministry, and China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the issue of NGO participation. In seeking an explanation for this unusual set of events, Dui Hua learned that the Chinese side raised strong objections to the inclusion of non-European NGOs in the seminar and, despite affirmations of respect for Dui Hua and its work, did not want to set a precedent by allowing a non-EU group to participate.

A Seminar Cancelled

In the end, the EU stood by its invitations to two other NGOs—Human Rights in China and China Labour Bulletin—whose participation in the seminar the Chinese deemed unacceptable. Both of these organizations have representatives based in Europe, and senior staff of the two groups had participated in prior rounds of the seminar under the auspices of other European organizations. The EU reasoned that there were no grounds to exclude these two NGOs, which were invited for the first time under their own names. But when the seminar opened and the EU made clear that it expected the two NGOs to participate, the Chinese side angrily protested and walked out en masse, forcing cancellation of the seminar. It remains to be seen what impact the cancellation will have, if any, on the EU-China human rights dialogue.

In a May 24 letter to Dui Hua Executive Director John Kamm, Rolf Timans, head of the Human Rights and Democratization Unit in the Directorate General for External Relations of the European Commission, reiterated to the foundation that the Chinese side’s “only grounds” for objecting to Dui Hua’s participation in the seminar was that it was US-based, rather than EU-based. “In saying this,” Timans wrote, “the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated very clearly that it valued the work of your organization and looked forward to continued good cooperation with you.”