The European Parliament has voted strongly in favour of the EU retaining its 15-year ban on arms sales to China.

In session in Strasbourg, the Parliamentarians voted 572 against lifting the embargo while 72 MEPs voted in favour of the lifting. Those in favour of lifting the embargo came primarily from Communist groups while all the major political parties were opposed.

The EU arms embargo was imposed as a result of concern over human rights in China following the violent suppression of the Tiananmen Square pr-democracy protests in 1989. Over the past 12 months, France and Germany have been spear-heading EU moves to lift the ban. China argues that the arms embargo is a “relic of the cold war” and should be lifted.

The Special Rapporteur assigned to assess the EU’s Code of Conduct on Arms Exports, Mr. Raul Romeva Rueda, cited three reasons why the MEPs have voiced mass opposition to lifting the China embargo. First, that the general human rights situation in China and Tibet has not improved significantly. Secondly, due to China’s continued widespread use of the death penalty: more than 10,000 people are executed in China annually, often following trials that do not meet international minimum standards and within hours of sentencing. Thirdly, due to issues of regional security and the ongoing “tensions” in the South China Sea.

Earlier on Wednesday, Mr. Rueda presented his report to the European Parliament (EP). The report stated that “the standards laid down by the Code of Conduct are undoubtedly being flouted” by China and the Parliament’s call for the Code to be legally binding still “remains relevant”.

With respect to China, the report: “calls on the Council and the Member States to maintain the EU embargo on trade in arms with the People’s Republic of China and not to weaken the existing national limitations on such arms sales; considers that this embargo should be maintained until such time as the EU has adopted a legally binding Code of Conduct on Arms Exports and the People’s Republic of China has taken concrete steps towards improving the human rights situation in that country, inter alia by ratifying the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and by fully respecting the rights of minorities”.

Mr. Thomas Mann, German MEP and President of the (former) EP Intergroup for Tibet, said that given China’s grave ongoing human rights abuses, now is not an appropriate time to lift the embargo.

“We in the European Parliament should not be taking an easy stand on serious issues like this simply because some member states are interested in expanding trade relationships with the PRC,” Mr. Mann said.

Ms. Tsering Jampa, Executive Director of the International Campaign for Tibet Europe, said today from Strasbourg: “Despite China’s strong campaign to lift the arms embargo, it is evident that MEPs remain convinced that China has not improved its human rights situation significantly enough to warrant a change of policy.

“While China continues to detain Tiananmen protesters and deny Tibetans and its own citizens of their intrinsic political rights, China cannot seriously claim that the embargo has anything to do with the Cold War. China needs to demonstrate genuine progress on human rights, instead of continued suppression of freedom of expression and political dissent in Tibet, Xinjiang and throughout the PRC,” said Ms. Jampa.

Despite the European Parliament’s strong position against lifting the embargo, it is understood that the EU’s member states remain divided on the issue. It is still possible that a decision on whether to change the arms policy could be taken at the General Affairs and External Relations Council meeting scheduled for 22-23 November. Nonetheless, the Dutch Foreign Minister and current chair of the Council, Mr. Bernard Bot, has recently said that a final decision was unlikely to come until after EU-China Summit on 8 December in The Hague.