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Italy debate on charges of China ‘genocide’ puts pressure on Draghi coalition

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A debate in Italy over whether to label China’s treatment of its Muslim Uyghur minority as “genocide” threatens to fracture the ruling coalition in Rome just as new Prime Minister Mario Draghi is trying to define his China policy.

Italian lawmakers could be next to use the “genocide” label for Beijing’s policies against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, but Draghi’s administration opposes that designation, which is being put forward in a resolution sponsored by the far-right League, part of the ruling coalition. Other parties in the government also would prefer to weigh words carefully and avoid a diplomatic clash.

The foreign affairs committee of the Italian parliament’s lower chamber is set to vote on Wednesday on the resolution condemning human right violations in Xinjiang and calling them “genocide.”

Paolo Formentini, the League lawmaker proposing the resolution, acknowledges that the word “genocide” is fraught for many of his colleagues, though the problem of abuses in Xinjiang is widely condemned.

“There are lots of concerns among basically all other political groups. Everyone would vote to condemn a violation of human rights. But when you say ‘genocide,’ everyone runs the other way,” Formentini told POLITICO in an interview.

Growing reports of abuses in Xinjiang, including of forced sterilization, helped push the U.S. and Canada to designate China’s activities in the region as “genocide.” The Dutch parliament is the only one in Europe to take a similar stance. Unlike in Brussels and in the Netherlands, where liberal and left-leaning parties are on the frontline in condemning abuses in Xinjiang, the drive in Italy is now coming from the right, with the League out in front.

“Apart from the Netherlands, no other parliament in the European Union has approved a firm condemnation of [that] genocide,” Formentini said. “It’s so important that Draghi’s Italy does it to break away from its secondary role on the European scene and become the leader of a solid Euro-Atlantic bond,” he explained, also framing the issue in terms of national pride.

The debate comes as the prime minister is still outlining his government’s policy toward Beijing. Now leading a country that faced criticism from Brussels and Washington for becoming the first G7 member to join China’s Belt and Road initiative in 2019, Draghi has yet to fully show his hand on China. But he has already used the government’s foreign investment screening tool against a Chinese company, and indications are it won’t be the last time.

The Draghi administration has proposed to redraft the League’s resolution to scrap the reference to “a genocidal policy” and replace it with “human rights violations,” according to two people with direct knowledge of the government proposals, which are confidential.

The resolution also states that Chinese policy in Xinjiang “falls under” the United Nations’ 1948 resolution on genocide. According to one of the people with knowledge of the proposal, the government would like to rephrase that statement to say “could fall.”

Italy’s foreign affairs ministry, which proposed the changes, declined to comment.

Parliamentary debate

But, for the time being, Formentini has no intention of taking the government’s suggestions on board. “The League has not renounced its text,” he said.

During a parliamentary debate last week, lawmakers from other ruling parties condemned Chinese policies toward the Uyghurs but rejected the word “genocide.” Benedetto Della Vedova, an undersecretary at the ministry for foreign affairs, for instance, flagged that neither the United Nations nor any international court has called human rights violations in the Xinjiang region genocide. Pino Cabras, a vice president of the foreign affairs committee from the anti-establishment 5Star movement, went as far as suggesting that international reports on Xinjiang could be U.S. propaganda.

A resolution condemning human rights violations in Xinjiang, even without the word genocide, would in any case be “a big step ahead,” according to Laura Harth from the Global Committee for the Rule of Law, a nongovernmental organization. “Diplomatic prudence from the government can be understood, even if we don’t share it. But reticence from lawmakers is less understandable,” she said.

The China debate also comes amid increasing criticism in Brussels as well as in European capitals of the EU-China investment agreement (known as “CAI”) concluded at the end of last year. According to Formentini, the EU should abandon that deal, which he sees as “an affront” against the U.S.

“There’s a link between CAI and my resolution,” he said. “If the EU is too dependent on China economically, it will also be less free to defend its values.”

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