Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Was Ban Ki-moon right to duck human rights in China?

A quick question that I’ve been mulling this morning: was Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, right not to raise human rights with China’s president, Hu Jintao, when the pair met on Monday?

His decision not bring up the issue, even in private, has drawn vociferous condemnation from human rights watchdogs who say that Ban has missed a golden opportunity to capitilise on the momentum generated by Liu Xiaobo winning this year’s Nobel peace prize.

So. Is Ban being spineless, or is he being smart?

I can see the argument for ducking. Human rights has become an increasingly partisan East v West issue in recent years and that division has been highlighted by Mr Liu winning the Nobel prize after being handed an 11-year sentence for writing his Charter 08 petition calling for more rights in China.

As the head of a multi-lateral organization like the United Nations, Ban could legitimately be wary of being seen to take sides. He is piggy-in-the-middle here and criticism of China’s human rights could identify him with the position of ‘Western’ powers, and undermine his position as neutral, honest broker.

How much better, then, not to anger and alienate the Chinese, but to flatter and encourage them? How much more productive to focus on China’s (undeniable) progress in so many areas in recent decades and then push China to play a bigger role in fixing climate change and reducing conflict in Africa and on the Korean Peninsular?

The job of UN Secretary General, as John Bolton, George Bush’s UN-bashing ambassador to New York, famously observed, is not that of a ‘secular pope’. The UN is not his pulpit and the job doesn’t come with moral authority.

But equally you can turn this argument on its head.

By not tackling the human rights issue, Ban is effectively agreeing with the Chinese idea that human rights are a pick-n-choose ‘internal affair’ in which they will not brook interference or see internationalized as a political issue.

Ban’s silence amounts to acquiescence with Beijing and, when you come to think about it, is more than a little strange coming from a man who heads the organization that is the custodian of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (Worth reading, if you haven’t, and re-reading if you have.)

If the wider world really believes these rights are ‘universal’ (Article 2) to all human beings – an idea that China rejects – then it is doubly important that Ban, who doesn’t represent the self-interests of any single nation, stands up for them.

China’s wants to polarize this debate, it wants to dismiss all human rights considerations as an unjustified “ideological war” by Western governments that seek to contain it, and Ban Ki-moon’s silence helps China do that.

Ban should have said something, and China’s rulers who explicitly put their self-appointed right to rule over the rights of ordinary people, will be absolutely delighted that he didn’t.

PS: One group, Human Rights Watch, decided to make the criticism personal, accusing Ban of going soft on the Chinese as he seeks re-election for a second term as UN boss next year. Even if that’s true – and Ban is a duffer – it’s a cheap shot that weakens their argument.

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