China Backs Ban Ki-Moon, As Advocacy Groups Criticize His Failure to Address Human Rights

By Patrick Goodenough | November 3, 2010 | 5:54 AM EDT

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon meets with President Hu Jintao at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on November 1, 2010. (UN Photo by Mark Garten)

( – Ban Ki-moon appears to have secured Beijing’s support in his bid for a second term as U.N. secretary-general, amid concerns that he may have done so at the cost of raising human rights issues with China.

Weeks after coming under fire from rights advocates for his muted response to the awarding of this year’s Nobel peace prize to imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, Ban during a visit to Beijing this week won praise from President Hu Jintao.

In his meeting with Hu, Ban raised climate change, poverty-reduction, peacekeeping the Korean peninsula, and crisis in Africa – but “he did not discuss human rights,” spokesman Martin Nesirky confirmed during a press briefing. (Nesirky later responded to further questions by saying Tuesday that human rights were discussed in Ban’s meetings with other Chinese leaders.)

Ban’s first term ends on Dec. 31, 2011, and members of the U.N. Security Council will take up discussion on his future early next year, ahead of taking a decision in October.

To win a second term, he needs the backing of nine of the Security Council’s 15 members and – crucially – no veto by a permanent member.

Four of Ban’s seven predecessor served two full terms. One died in a plane crash, one resigned early and Egypt’s Boutros Boutros-Ghali was vetoed by the U.S. for a second term in 1996.

China has not formally announced that it will support Ban’s re-election, but the Xinhua news agency reported that Hu “vowed continued support for the work of the United Nations and its chief.”

“Hu said China appreciated Ban’s efforts in promoting world peace and development since he became the U.N.’s chief.”

Ban, whose five-day visit came at the invitation of the government, praised what he called China’s leading role in countering the global financial crisis, promoting sustainable development, supporting peacekeeping and “protecting the rights of women and children.”

“Ban’s failure to raise human rights issues, even in private, with the Chinese president was inexcusable,” Philippe Bolopion, U.N. advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said by email Tuesday.

“If the secretary-general was in fact trying to secure China’s support for a second bid, it would be a misguided attempt, and one that overlooks the fact that to be relevant, the U.N. secretary-general has to be clear and courageous on human rights,” he added.

Ahead of Ban’s trip, Human Rights Watch had urged him to speak out on human rights and the case of Liu Xiaobo.

Even in opportunities he had to raise concerns about China’s rights record directly with wider Chinese audiences, Ban made only cautious references.

The closest he came to challenging China over the issue was in a speech Sunday at Nanjing University, where he received an honorary doctorate.

“For me, we find those common values and shared principles in the United Nations Charter, as well as the body of international agreements that are the foundation of our common quest for development, peace and security and human rights,” he said. “In all this, we need China’s full engagement. We need China’s leadership.”

In two events in Shanghai on Monday, Ban mentioned human rights in passing, but only in the context of human rights being part of the U.N.’s mission.

His final engagement before leaving China Wednesday will be a round-table discussion at the Communist Party’s Central Party School, which trains party officials in Marxist principles and other subjects.

Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China (HRIC) – an international Chinese non-governmental organization based in Hong Kong and New York – expressed the hope that Ban had raised Liu Xiaobo’s case in private with Hu “and urged him to respond positively to the broad international calls for Liu Xiaobo’s release.”

Earlier this month several U.N. human rights experts jointly called for China to release Liu Xiaobo and “all persons detained for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression.”

Hom said it would be “extremely disappointing if the secretary-general of the United Nations – especially one seeking re-election – did not demonstrate the human rights leadership” already shown by those officials.


Beijing is famously sensitive to outside criticism of its human rights record, and it responded angrily to the awarding of the Nobel peace prize to Liu Xiaobo, a veteran pro-democracy advocate who was sentenced last December to 11 years’ imprisonment for “inciting subversion of state power.”

The decision by the Norwegian award committee to honor a “criminal” in that way, the state-run China Daily declared, “broadens the suspicion that there is a Western plot to contain a rising China.”

Citing sources inside China, HRIC reports that up to 40 people, ranging from dissidents and online activists to house church organizers, have been placed under house arrest in the weeks since the Nobel announcement.

When the Nobel decision was made public, Ban drew criticism for issuing a lukewarm statement which not only did not call for Liu’s release but also reserved his concern for the possibility that “differences” over the award decision could “detract from advancement of the human rights agenda globally or the high prestige and inspirational power of the award.”

Ban voiced no such concern when President Obama won the 2009 award – a decision that also attracted some controversy – but instead called that move “very wise” and “great news,” saying he supported the choice “wholeheartedly.”

In contrast to Ban’s silence about Liu’s imprisonment, he did not hesitate last week to call again on Burma’s military junta to release political prisoners in that country, including Aung San Suu Kyi, another Nobel peace prize winner, who has spent three-quarters of the past two decades in detention or under house arrest.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow