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Olympic Boycott Skirts Human Rights Debate in Europe

Statement of Matthias Chardon

By Sean Sinico

28.03.2008 · dw-world.de


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As violence in Tibet enters its third week, European governments continue to debate boycotting the Beijing Olympics. But some say that's nothing more than a symbolic move to avoid a human rights confrontation with China.

European Union foreign ministers began talks on Friday, March 28, on whether the bloc would respond to China's crackdown on pro-independence protesters in Tibet with a boycott of the 2008 Summer Olympics opening ceremony.

Violence ensuing from street protests, which began on March 10 to mark the anniversary of a failed 1959 uprising against Chinese rule in Tibet and turned into riots four days later, has left some 140 dead, according to Tibetan leaders in exile. Chinese authorities put the figure at 20.

An easy way to make a statement

A boycott of the opening ceremony - or even all the Olympic events - is a sign that lets Western governments make a symbolic statement without really risking much, said Matthias Chardon of Munich's Center for Applied Policy Research. 

"When considered as a symbol, a boycott is a clear, public sign," he said. "The power of these kinds of symbolic statements shouldn't be underestimated, but a boycott of the opening ceremony is a relatively easy statement to make."

The scope of violence in Tibet, however, demands more than a symbolic statement, according to Marianne Heuwagen of Human Rights Watch's Berlin office.

"I think it's inappropriate to only talk about an Olympic boycott at this point," she said. "Europe has to make clear that what's happening is not acceptable." 

She said the international community should call for an independent investigation of what has occurred in Tibet and ask for journalists to be granted free access to the region.

"Europe needs to hold China to the agreements it made when it was awarded the Olympics," she said, adding that Beijing had not kept promises regarding freedom of the press by kicking foreign journalists out of Tibet during the demonstrations. 

Serious consequences unlikely

China, however, realizes its status as a world economic power will go a long way in protecting it from more serious consequences, according to Karsten Giese, a China expert at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies.

"Serious consequences that go beyond symbolic policies are unlikely - China's role in the global economy and politics is too strong," he said. "Nothing can get done without China when it comes to dealing with issues like North Korea, the Iranian nuclear program or global climate change."

China has replaced the US as the main source of EU imports and is becoming an increasingly popular destination for European products, according to EU statistics for 2006, the most recent year for which records exist. 

In part, it's an interest in maintaining positive trade relations that keeps the bloc from discussing measures beyond sitting out the Olympic opening ceremony, Chardon said.

"Every European country is also working hard to keep up good relations with China so business isn't disturbed," he added. "If they are serious about improving the situation then they should probably consider economic measures." 

France's Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner admitted there were economic concerns that played a role in determining the EU's response to violence in Tibet. 

"We are constrained by a certain number of economic interests," he told the daily newspaper Liberation this week.

International initiatives needed

One economic move came out of Berlin on Wednesday when Germany said it would cancel aid talks scheduled for May unless violence in Tibet stopped. 

"It is hard to imagine dialog taking place under the current conditions," German Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul said in a statement.

But such steps would be more effective if they were coordinated at an EU-level, Chardon said: Calls for change will carry more weight when made by not just 80 million Germans but 497 million Europeans.


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