(Updates to include U.N. statement on Ban in China)
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is gearing up for a campaign to retain his seat as the United Nations’ top official for another five years, U.N. diplomats say. This, rights advocates suggest, may be the reason he sidestepped the issue of human rights during his latest visit to China, his fourth in as many years. Ban did not raise the issue of Beijing’s alleged rights abuses during a meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao on Monday. Nor did he call on the Chinese government to release jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo, this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner.
“It is correct he did not discuss human rights (in China),” Ban’s spokesman Martin Nesirky told reporters in New York, adding that he also did not raise the issue of Liu’s detention. He noted that the secretary-general’s Oct. 8 statement on the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize “still stands.”
Ban’s carefully worded statement on the award, which was criticized as “mealy-mouthed” by Foreign Policy magazine’s Turtle Bay blog, did not call for Liu’s release and offered only indirect praise of his work as a dissident. (In contrast to Ban, the Nobel Committee praised Liufor his “long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights” and reiterated its belief in a “close connection between human rights and peace.”) In the same statement the U.N. chief was full of praise for Beijing: “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,” he said. Beijing was infuriated by the decision to give Liu the award, describing it as ”an obscenity.”
It’s not as if human rights are off-limits for the secretary-general. Hardly a week goes by in which Ban doesn’t publicly call on the military junta of Myanmar to release Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. His latest appeal to the leaders of the former Burma was issued on Friday, when he urged the government to release all political prisoners ahead of the country’s first election in 20 years, scheduled for Nov. 7.
(After news reports quoting Nesirky’s remarks appeared, the U.N. press office issued a statement saying that while Ban did not discuss human rights with Hu, the issue was raised in meetings with “other Chinese leaders.” The statement did not identify those other leaders.)
It’s politics, diplomats and human rights activists say. The former South Korean foreign minister is expected to make a bid for a second five-year term before his current mandate expires at the end of 2011. Ban, they say, has already begun closed-door campaigning and his efforts to avoid annoying China are no surprise.
China — unlike Myanmar — is a permanent, veto-wielding member of the U.N. Security Council and has a great deal of power when it comes to choosing the secretary-general. Like the other four permanent council members — Britain, France, Russia and the United States — China can block any candidate it dislikes. Officially it is the full 15-nation Security Council that passes on a recommendation of who should run the United Nations to the 192-nation General Assembly for approval. In reality, it is the five veto powers, known as the “P5″, who make the decision. And offending Beijing by raising the issue of a jailed dissident shortly before he might ask for their support was apparently not something Ban wanted to do.
“Ban’s silence on human rights in China is inexcusable, particularly at a time when human rights defenders in China are being harassed and intimidated by the government,” Human Rights Watch advocacy director Philippe Bolopion told Reuters. “If he’s trying to curry favors from the Chinese for his re-election bid, he is losing the support of those who would want a more courageous and principled secretary-general. His silence is even more disturbing coming from someone who has often advocated for private diplomacy.”
Separately, a Chinese news website has reported that U.N. under-secretary-general Sha Zukang went to Beijing ahead of Ban’s arrival and presented an award to a Chinese general who led troops that fired on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in June 1989. General Chi Haotian, a former defense minister, received the World Harmony Foundation (WHF) award, a crystal trophy in the shape of a dove. The report says the award was launched earlier this year to mark the 65th anniversary of the United Nations. Sha is the highest ranking Chinese U.N. official and made headlines recently after making public remarks that were critical of Ban. Nesirky declined to comment on the report.