U.N. Leader Skips Opportunity to Reproach China on Human Rights

By Patrick Goodenough | October 12, 2010 | 4:45 AM EDT

A November 2007 photo shows Liu Xiaobo at a gathering in Beijing. (AP Photo)

(CNSNews.com) - U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s guarded reaction to the awarding of this year’s Nobel peace prize to an imprisoned Chinese dissident has raised eyebrows.

In a brief statement worded in a way that would not offend China, Ban avoided any direct criticism of Beijing’s human rights record, praising it instead for economic, political and human rights progress.

The statement – released by a spokesman rather than by Ban himself – also did not call on China to release Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned pro-democracy activist awarded the peace prize, or any other dissidents in Chinese jails.

The only concern implied in the four-sentence statement was that the decision to honor Liu could upset China and so “detract from advancement of the human rights agenda globally or the high prestige and inspirational power of the award.” The full statement appears at the end of this story.

Moreover, when Ban’s spokesman, Martin Nesirky, was given the opportunity again at a press briefing Monday to say that the secretary-general called for Liu’s release, he did not do so, but merely referred reporters back to the earlier statement.

Asked whether “human rights extends only so far as not pissing off an important member state,” Nesirky replied that Ban’s statement had been “very clear on the need for human rights everywhere.”

“There is nothing about Liu Xiaobo himself,” a reporter pointed out. “It doesn’t congratulate him; it doesn’t say anything about his detention.”

“The statement is quite clear in what it says,” the spokesman replied. “Okay?”

U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Navanethem Pillay and Human Rights Council President Sihasak Phuangketkeow address the opening of the HRC session in Geneva on September 13, 2010. (UN Photo by Jean-Marc Ferre)

In her reaction to the Nobel announcement the U.N.’s top human rights official, human rights commissioner Navanethem Pillay, also made no call for Liu’s release. Unlike Ban, she did welcome the decision, however, describing Liu as a “very prominent human rights defender.”

(Four lower-level human rights experts linked to Pillay’s division did release a statement Monday calling for Liu’s release.)

Liu, who helped to draft Charter 08, a manifesto calling for peaceful political reform in the Communist Party-ruled state, was put on trial for “inciting subversion of state power,” convicted, and sentenced last December to 11 years’ imprisonment, plus deprivation of political rights for two years.

China reacted angrily to the decision to award the Nobel prize to the 54-year-old scholar. His wife was placed under house arrest and had her cell phone and Internet communication cut after visiting him in prison at the weekend.

An op-ed in the state-run China Daily Monday said the decision to give the award to Liu “broadens the suspicion that there is a Western plot to contain a rising China.”

“Peace, in Beijing's lexicon, stands for a good rapport among nations, at the heart of which lies mutual respect and non-interference in each other's domestic affairs,” it said.

Obama award was ‘great news’

Ban’s cautious reaction is in stark contrast to his enthusiastic response to the Nobel committee’s decision a year ago to give the prize to President Obama, who at the time had been in office for less than a year.

On that occasion Ban called the Norwegian committee’s selection of Obama “very wise” and “great news” – a decision that he supported “wholeheartedly.”

“We at the United Nations highly applaud him, and the Nobel committee for its choice,” he said.

Ban hopes to secure a second term as secretary-general when his current one ends late ext year, an ambition that will be thwarted should any permanent Security Council member – the U.S., China, Britain, France, Russia – veto his reappointment.

Human Rights in China, an international Chinese non-governmental organization based in Hong Kong and New York, called Ban’s statement “disappointing and weak.”

HRIC executive director Sharon Hom said Tuesday it was “in sharp contrast to the strong position” taken by the four U.N. rights experts.

Hom was also critical of Ban for citing Chinese government claims about advances in the economic, political and human rights fields.

Doing so, she said, “unfortunately ignores the fact that Liu Xiaobo is serving an 11 year prison sentence for efforts to broaden political participation through Charter 08 and his trenchant criticism of China’s failure to respect rights enshrined in China’s own constitution and in international human rights law.”

U.N. Watch, a Geneva-based organization that monitors the U.N.’s human rights system, questioned Ban and Pillay, “the U.N.’s two leading voices on human rights issues,” for not taking the opportunity of the Nobel announcement to call on China to free Liu.

“There are 1.3 billion people in China – one sixth of the world’s population – who are subjected to the systematic deprivation of universal human rights,” said the group’s executive director, Hillel Neuer.

Beijing’s power and influence at the U.N. should never justify silence or reticence by the U.N.’s highest officials, especially those charged with being a voice for the voiceless and with defending victims of human rights violations.”

China in the Human Rights Council

China is a member of the U.N.’s Geneva-based Human Rights Council (HRC), a body which critics say is frequently used by autocratic governments to defend their own poor human rights records and those of likeminded regimes.

China last year went through the HRC’s “universal periodic review,” a much-touted procedure aimed at assessing every U.N. member state’s human rights record once every four years.

Chinese officials rejected concerns raised by mostly Western governments about abuses and denied that there was any censorship or restrictions on religious freedom in China. Beijing then won praise from countries including Iran, Sudan, Cuba, Burma and Zimbabwe.

In the four years since the HRC was established China has not been the subject of a single resolution by the 47-nation body. Of a total 61 resolutions passed, 30 have applied to Israel.

Ban’s statement on the 2010 Nobel peace prize announcement reads in full:

“The award of the Nobel peace prize to Liu Xiaobo of China is a recognition of the growing international consensus for improving human rights practices and culture around the world.

“The secretary-general has consistently emphasized the importance of human rights along with development and peace and security as the three main pillars of the work of the United Nations.

“Over the past years, China has achieved remarkable economic advances, lifted millions out of poverty, broadened political participation and steadily joined the international mainstream in its adherence to recognized human rights instruments and practices.

“The secretary-general expresses his sincere hope that any differences on this decision will not detract from advancement of the human rights agenda globally or the high prestige and inspirational power of the award.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow