China’s rulers miscalculated badly when they prevented Liu Xiaobo’s family from collecting today’s Nobel Peace Prize on his behalf.
The country’s Communist Party chiefs have tried to diminish the event by organizing a boycott and keeping every Chinese intellectual they can round up from attending. But, in place of a one-off ceremony that might quickly be forgotten – does anybody pay attention to Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize anymore? – all of China’s bluster and bullying has made this year’s award one that will be long remembered. You can watch the ceremonies, beginning at 1 p.m. Oslo time (7 a.m. on the U.S. East Coast) at this link, as long as you are not in China or another country that similarly restricts internet transmissions.
Liu now joins such notable Peace Prize winners as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela and Aung Sang Suu Kyi as recipients who have become enduring symbols of struggle and sacrifice in the interest of freedom.
Liu is the principal author of Charter 08, a call for multi-party democracy and respect for the rights guaranteed to Chinese citizens by their country’s constitution. More than 300 Chinese intellectuals defied their government by signing the charter, which invoked the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that the United Nations General Assembly adopted 62 years ago today. China’s ruling class responded to the challenge a year ago by convicting Liu of “inciting subversion of state power.” He was sentenced to 11 years in prison.
China tried to intimidate the Nobel committee against giving Liu the prize. Having failed at that, it has dismissed the committee as “clowns,” subjected Liu’s wife to house arrest – though she has not been charged with a crime, let alone convicted – and prevented more than 100 invited Chinese from leaving the country for the ceremony. Only one of Liu’s countrymen, who happened to be outside China when the award was announced, is expected to make it to today’s event.
Diplomats from 19 countries also had more pressing engagements elsewhere and found it impossibly inconvenient to send anyone to the awards ceremony. Most of these countries have human rights records that rival China’s. These include Russia, Cuba, Iran and the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan. Saudi Arabia, also not represented, represses women and anyone who does not subscribe to its dominant strain of Sunni Islam. Egypt has just finished its own tainted elections. Venezuela, though not yet totalitarian under the government of Hugo Chavez, travels in these same autocratic circles.
But some of the absentees are a disconcerting surprise. The Philippines, which shrugged off its own authoritarian rule not long ago, will be unrepresented. So will Colombia, a thriving emerging democracy that has put revolutionary terror on the run, and Pakistan, our sometimes-ally against violent fundamentalism. All these countries may be responding to China’s application of commercial pressure.
But more than 40 nations have defied the Chinese by sending delegations today. Among them is Norway, against which China has already retaliated for hosting the award.
The furor over the Nobel Prize has attracted renewed, and deserved, attention to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was a remarkably forward-looking document when it was written, and even more remarkably was adopted on a 48-0 vote just as the Cold War was hitting its stride. (There were eight abstentions, consisting of Soviet-bloc votes together with Saudi Arabia and apartheid South Africa.) Eleanor Roosevelt, who helped negotiate it for the United States, considered it her proudest accomplishment.
Among its 30 articles are: that “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile;” that all are entitled to “an independent tribunal” in criminal cases; that “no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment;” and that “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression: this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
Few, if any, societies live up to the Declaration’s demands all the time. Some of those demands, in fact, might be debatable in practice if not in principle, such as a mandate that “everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.”
But there is a moral chasm between those that aspire to live up to the Declaration’s principles and those that try to diminish or evade them. The former strive to make this world a better place for all who live here; the latter seek to gain or maintain primacy at the expense of others. The Declaration demands that we all place the rule of law before the law of the jungle.
Today’s Nobel Peace Prize goes to man who seeks to move his country from one side of this ledger to the other. He deserves the world’s respect. He will get it from those who see human rights as something more than mere words on a piece of paper.
The 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, and China’s shrill demands that we reject it, give all of us a chance to stand up and be counted on something that matters.