Greece has vetoed a European Union statement condemning China’s human rights record at the UN, infuriating diplomats and human rights organisations, who said the move undermined the EU’s efforts to confront Beijing’s crackdown on activists and dissidents. The statement was due to be submitted to the UN’s Human Rights Council (UNHCR) in Geneva last Thursday.

This marked the first time that the EU had failed to make one of its thrice-yearly human rights statements at the UN, which undermines the Union’s status as a a beacon of human rights protection, taking a tough stance on issues ranging from LGBT rights to banning capital punishment, and upholding press freedoms.

Criticism towards China was based on ‘the government’s systematic efforts to silence independent civil society voices’, by detaining more than 16 human rights advocates. According to the Human Rights Watch 2017 report, ‘under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, who will remain in power until 2022 and possibly beyond, the outlook for fundamental human rights, including freedoms of expression, assembly, association and religion, remains dire.’

The Greek government’s refusal to endorse the statement was met with severe criticism, and seen as deplorable. The general belief is that this stance is due to the country’s dependence on Chinese investments, especially given Chinese shipping giant Cosco owns 51 per cent of the Port of Pireaus.

Another point of criticism from EU diplomats came from the fact that the Greek veto came after the Eurogroup’s decision to unlock €8.5bn (AUD$12.5bn) in bailout loans, allowing Athens to avert default when it faces €7.4bn in debt repayments next month. “It was dishonourable, to say the least,” one EU diplomat told Reuters in Brussels.

A Greek foreign ministry official said Athens blocked the statement, calling it ‘unconstructive criticism of China’ and said separate EU talks with China outside the UN were a better avenue for discussions.