Ban Ki-moon was too quiet in China

UN Secretary General is famous for his quiet diplomacy. But human rights group has criticized Ban Ki-moon for failing to raise human rights issues at talks with China’s President Hu Jintao.


Was Ban Ki-moon right or wrong in not raising this question, and why?


Jackie Sheehan, Associate Professor in Contemporary Chinese Studies and Deputy Head of School, School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham

I’ve seen the criticism today of Ban Ki-moon, and I personally think it’s justified. It’s striking that Ban did call for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, another imprisoned Nobel Laureate, last Friday, just ahead of his visit to China, while keeping silent about Liu Xiaobo.

Others in the UN, e.g. Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay, were far less guarded in their original comments on Liu Xiaobo’s award than Ban was. Ban didn’t really say anything in his comments about human rights in China, and seemed more concerned that the prestige of the Nobel Peace Prize might be damaged by awarding it to Liu and angering China.

I tend to agree with HRW that the explanation for Ban’s silence is probably more than just reticence faced with China’s increasing assertiveness on the international stage now that it is fully aware of its importance as an engine of international economic growth. If he is planning to seek re-election as UN secretary general, he will be wary of annoying China as a permanent member of the UN Security Council which could veto his second term.

But whether or not he has a pressing personal motive for failing to raise Liu’s case, it’s a poor display for the head of a global organization which, as he himself said last month when commenting on the Peace Prize, has human rights as one of the main pillars of its work. Individual countries sometimes hesitate to criticize China because they fear bilateral retaliation and being cut out of trade and investment deals, but that’s all the more reason for multilateral organizations like the UN to take the lead. And actually, many national leaders have been prepared to speak out on Liu’s behalf (from the UK, France, the US, Taiwan etc.).

Liu Xiaobo has been sentenced to 11 years’ imprisonment and a further two years’ deprivation of civil rights for peacefully and non-violently expressing his opinions; he’s a prisoner of conscience. As Geir Lundestad of the Nobel Committee commented in the Guardian (27 October), the severity of Liu’s sentence made him instantly “a universal symbol of human rights”, and the natural choice for the Committee in order to recognize the efforts of human-rights activists in China generally. He ought to be worth a few minutes of the UN secretary general’s time while in China, as well.

Bernt Berger, Researcher, Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, Deutsches Institut für Internationale Politik und Sicherheit

It is not necessarily Ban Ki-moon’s task to raise this issue. In doing so he would also confront headwind from a great number of countries who support non-intervention into China’s internal affairs. Besides, when dealing with China the question whether or not to raise Human Rights, but how to raise the issues.

In recent years China was able do deflect any kind of criticism or pressure. The reason is that large parts of Chinese public increasingly perceives outside pressure as a part of external containment strategies and a hostile attitude towards China and its global rise.
The case of Liu Xiaobo has shown, that often issues have greater importance in the West than inside China. Liberal discourse is not part of public debate. Instead nationalism and economic issues take priority.

In order to avoid suspicion about ulterior motives it is more effective to engage in assisting China in building up a more viable legal system through expert exchanges and capacity building. Additionally specific issues such as free speech or the nexus between corruption and human rights should be raised.

Steve Tsang, Reader in Politics and Fellow in Modern Chinese Studies, St Antonys College, University of Oxford

Why should the SG of the UN not raise human rights issue with any member states if there are real and serious concern over human rights in that member state? Will the UNSG avoid raising human rights issues with other permanent members of the UNSC such as GB, Fr or the USA if there are good grounds to do so?  Is there a good reason why any permanent member of the UNSC, in this case China, should be treated differently from the others by the Secretary General of the UN?

One Response

  1. Ban Ki-moon was too quiet in China « Matisak's Blog (A Stamp on ……

    Here at World Spinner we are debating the same thing……

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