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EU and China to sign investment deal amid unease over rights

BRUSSELS: The European Union and China are set to sign a long-awaited business investment deal after seven years of intense discussions despite concerns about the human rights situation in the country.

The provisional agreement is set to be announced Wednesday, an EU official with direct knowledge of the talks said. The official was not authorized to speak publicly as a matter of practice.

The deal was sealed after China committed to pursuing ratification of the International Labor Organization’s rules on forced labor, according to the unnamed official. The EU hopes the agreement, known as CAI, will help correct an imbalance in market access and create new investment opportunities for European companies in China by ensuring they can compete on an equal footing when operating in the country.

The EU previously said the agreement, which includes provisions for settling disputes, should increase the transparency of Chinese state subsidies and make sustainable development a key element of the relationship between the EU and China. The deal also includes clear rules against the forced transfer of technologies, a practice in which a government requires foreign investors to share their technology in exchange for market access.

The agreement was reached as the EU expressed concerns Tuesday about “the restrictions on freedom of expression, on access to information, and intimidation and surveillance of journalists, as well as detentions, trials and sentencing of human rights defenders, lawyers, and intellectuals in China.”

The EU’s diplomatic agency, the European External Action Service, called for the immediate release of Zhang Zhan, a former lawyer who reported on the early stage of the coronavirus outbreak in China and has been sentenced to four years in prison.

“According to credible sources, Ms. Zhang has been subject to torture and ill-treatment during her detention, and her health condition has seriously deteriorated,” the EU said. “It is crucial that she receives adequate medical assistance.”

To enter into force, the agreement will need to be ratified by the European Parliament, and the issue of human rights could be a sticking point.

“The stories coming out of Xinjiang are pure horror. The story in Brussels is we’re ready to sign an investment treaty with China,” Guy Verhofstadt, a Belgian member of the EU legislature said as he tweeted out a news story on forced labor in the Xinjiang region of northwestern China. “Under these circumstances any Chinese signature on human rights is not worth the paper it is written on.”

The EU-China agreement also has the potential to cause tension with the administration of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden only weeks after the EU proposed a trans-Atlantic dialogue to address “the strategic challenge presented by China’s growing international assertiveness.”

The EU official said the investment deal will give the EU the same level of market access in China that the United States has and insisted that the deal will benefit other trading partners by getting China to commit to high standards of conduct.

Turkey slaps advertising ban on Twitter, Periscope, Pinterest over non-compliance

ANKARA: Turkey on Tuesday slapped advertising bans on Twitter, Periscope and Pinterest over their non-compliance with a controversial new law that requires social media platforms to appoint legal representatives in the country.

The law – which human rights and media freedom groups say amounts to censorship – forces social media companies to maintain representatives in Turkey to deal with complaints about content on their platforms. Companies that refuse to designate an official representative are subjected to fines, followed by advertising bans and could face bandwidth reductions that would make their platforms too slow to use.

Facebook avoided the advertising ban after it announced Monday that it had begun the process of assigning a legal entity in Turkey, joining LinkedIn, YouTube, TikTok, Dailymotion and the Russian social media site VKontakte, which have agreed to set up legal entities in Turkey.

“We hope that Twitter and Pinterest which have still not announced their representatives will rapidly take the necessary steps,” said Omer Fatih Sayan, the deputy minister in charge of communications and infrastructure, after the advertising bans for Twitter, it’s live video-streaming app, Periscope and on the image sharing network, Pinterest, were announced on Turkey’s Official Gazette.

Sayan added: “It is our last wish to impose bandwidth reductions for social networks that insist on not complying with their obligations.”

There was no immediate comment from Twitter and Pinterest over the advertising ban.

Under the law that came into effect in October, the local representative of social media companies would be tasked with responding to inpidual requests to take down content violating privacy and personal rights within 48 hours or to provide grounds for rejection. The company would be held liable for damages if the content is not removed or blocked within 24 hours.

The law also requires social media data to be stored in Turkey, raising concerns in a country where the government has a track record of clamping down on free speech.

Rights groups have said the decision by international tech companies to bow to Turkish pressure and appoint representatives would lead to censorship and violations of the right to privacy and access to information in a country where independent media is severely curtailed. The Freedom of Expression Association says more than 450,000 domains and 42,000 tweets have been blocked in Turkey since October.

Facebook said Monday it remained committed to maintaining free expression and other human rights in Turkey.

View: Progress on women’s rights has been hard fought – now everything is at risk under the Taliban

When the Taliban was in power between 1996 and 2001, women’s rights to education and employment were brutally violated. They could only go out in public if accompanied by a male relative and, even then, had to be fully covered with a burqa. There was severe punishment for disobeying these strict rules.

In the 20 years since the Taliban was ousted, Afghan women have fought for their own rights and have taken a proactive role in the development of human rights in their nation – including the establishment of Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.

Under the government that has just been toppled, there was a Ministry of Women’s Affairs and, in 2009, a landmark law was passed to address violence against women. Afghanistan has also become a signatory to several international human rights instruments, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Now that the Taliban has once again taken over, women fear the worst.

Struggle for justice
Despite progress, the World Health Organization estimates that almost 90% of women in Afghanistan have experienced at least one form of domestic violence and that 17% have experienced sexual violence. This high rate of violence is rooted in cultural values but is also enabled by the way laws are structured and justice is delivered.

Women are often unable to access justice on the same terms as men, be that through formal or informal dispute resolution mechanisms. For example, if an Afghan woman decides to take legal action under the landmark law Elimination of Violence Against Women, she will often face violence from a family member for trying to stand up for her rights.

In many cases, husbands, family members, police, lawyers and judges discourage women from taking legal action. Many women report sexual assault via abusive vaginal examinations, or “virginity tests”, during court procedures. The virginity examination is a routine part of criminal proceedings when women are accused of moral crimes, including sex outside of marriage. In many cases women’s sexual histories are used in court as evidence to justify long prison terms.

Both men and women face delays and a lack of support when seeking legal representation in Afghanistan but women find it even harder because of discriminatory cultural norms and a lack of family support. Women are likely to have a lower level of literacy, lack of information about how the justice system works and have limited access to financial resources. Being dependent on male breadwinners is an important barrier in taking legal action.

In addition to formal obstacles, women face strong societal pressure to resolve marital disputes via informal justice mechanisms such as jirgas (an assembly of local leaders) and shura (a consultation process) – even though these offer them little protection.

Women must be represented by a male family member in informal community dispute resolution gatherings so don’t have the freedom to speak for themselves. And some mechanisms of dispute resolution based on restorative principles, such as the exchange of women between tribes to resolve a disputes, are fundamentally discriminatory to women.

Return to Taliban rule
While the situation in Afghanistan has been difficult for women over the past two decades, there was at least a shift in the right direction and support for change among many important people.

The justice system operated by the Taliban, by contrast, is likely to wilfully violate the constitutional and international protections that are in place to support women. With the international community in retreat, there will be no one to stop the new regime from dismantling these protections. It took significant political pressure to push ahead with what reforms have taken place. That will now disappear altogether.

One major concern is the future of the many women’s rights organisations and other civil society groups that have been operating in Afghanistan until now. International charities and foreign embassies have supported their work on the ground but are now leaving them vulnerable.

The Afghan legal system is highly complex. It is based on religious values, custom and tribal values, often resulting in discriminatory processes. Women, can, for example, be imprisoned for zina (moral crimes) that can include “running away from home” in domestic violence cases.

Even when a court rules in favour of a woman, she may still face violence at the hands of her own family. Patriarchal norms and socio-cultural values carry a great deal of weight and often prevent women from accessing the public sphere – such as courts and police stations – without the accompaniment of male guardians. Taking legal action against spouses is often perceived as a shameful taboo.

These practices continue despite two decades of progress. Now it seems more likely that such practices will become the norm under the Taliban. Their recent statement declares: “We are going to allow women to work and study within our frameworks”. This leaves open the question: what is the framework being offered?

The women who lived under the Taliban 20 years ago remember with fear their extreme interpretation of Sharia law. These women have little faith that the new regime will be any different. As a female academic working on access to justice, it’s unbearable to imagine what it would feel like to live under the Taliban’s misogynist rule, where men will be able to spin patriarchal narratives from religious laws.

(This article is syndicated by PTI from The Conversation)
(The author is from University of Essex. Views are personal)