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"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."

Why We Gave Liu Xiaobo a Nobel

October 26, 2010

International Herald Tribune (IHT)
October 22, 2010

THE Chinese authorities’ condemnation of the
Nobel committee’s selection of Liu Xiaobo, the
jailed political activist, as the winner of the
2010 Peace Prize inadvertently illustrates why
human rights are worth defending.

The authorities assert that no one has the right
to interfere in China’s internal affairs. But
they are wrong: international human rights law
and standards are above the nation-state, and the
world community has a duty to ensure they are respected.

The modern state system evolved from the idea of
national sovereignty established by the Peace of
Westphalia in 1648. At the time, sovereignty was
assumed to be embodied in an autocratic ruler.

But ideas about sovereignty have changed over
time. The American Declaration of Independence
and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man
and of the Citizen replaced the control of the
autocrat with the sovereignty of the people as
the source of national power and legitimacy.

The idea of sovereignty changed again during the
last century, as the world moved from nationalism
to internationalism. The United Nations, founded
in the wake of two disastrous world wars,
committed member states to resolve disputes by
peaceful means and defined the fundamental rights
of all people in the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights. The nation-state, the declaration
said, would no longer have ultimate, unlimited power.

Today, universal human rights provide a check on
arbitrary majorities around the world, whether
they are democracies or not. A majority in a
parliament cannot decide to harm the rights of a
minority, nor vote for laws that undermine human
rights. And even though China is not a
constitutional democracy, it is a member of the
United Nations, and it has amended its
Constitution to comply with the Declaration of Human Rights.

However, Mr. Liu’s imprisonment is clear proof
that China’s criminal law is not in line with its
Constitution. He was convicted of “spreading
rumors or slander or any other means to subvert
the state power or overthrow the socialist
system.” But in a world community based on
universal human rights, it is not a government’s
task to stamp out opinions and rumors.
Governments are obliged to ensure the right to
free expression — even if the speaker advocates a different social system.

These are rights that the Nobel committee has
long upheld by honoring those who struggle to
protect them with the Peace Prize, including
Andrei Sakharov for his struggle against human
rights abuses in the Soviet Union, and the Rev.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for his fight for civil rights in the United States.

Not surprisingly, the Chinese government has
harshly criticized the award, claiming that the
Nobel committee unlawfully interfered with its
internal affairs and humiliated it in the eyes of
the international public. On the contrary, China
should be proud that it has become powerful
enough to be the subject of debate and criticism.

Interestingly, the Chinese government is not the
only one to criticize the Nobel committee. Some
people have said that giving the prize to Mr. Liu
may actually worsen conditions for human-rights advocates in China.

But this argument is illogical: it leads to the
conclusion that we best promote human rights by
keeping quiet. If we keep quiet about China, who
will be the next country to claim its right to
silence and non-interference? This approach would
put us on a path toward undermining the Universal
Declaration and the basic tenets of human rights.
We must not and cannot keep quiet. No country has
a right to ignore its international obligations.

China has every reason to be proud of what it has
achieved in the last 20 years. We want to see
that progress continue, and that is why we
awarded the Peace Prize to Mr. Liu. If China is
to advance in harmony with other countries and
become a key partner in upholding the values of
the world community, it must first grant freedom
of expression to all its citizens.

It is a tragedy that a man is being imprisoned
for 11 years merely because he expressed his
opinion. If we are to move toward the fraternity
of nations of which Alfred Nobel spoke, then
universal human rights must be our touchstone.

Thorbjorn Jagland is the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee
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