Two key anniversaries coincided in Oslo yesterday with the presentation of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波). For just the second time in the prize’s 109-year history, neither the recipient nor a close family member was able to attend the ceremony because his government would not allow it. An empty chair said it all.
Dec. 10 is notable as the day in 1889 that Swedish chemist and weapons manufacturer Alfred Nobel died. It was also the day in 1948 that the UN adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In 1950, the UN General Assembly picked the day to be commemorated as Human Rights Day, while the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded on the anniversary of Nobel’s death since Nobel prizes were inaugurated in 1901, with 19 exceptions. Those interruptions have usually been during times of war.
It seems especially fitting this year that Liu is being honored on Human Rights Day, since his life’s work epitomizes what the UN was trying to achieve with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: The recognition that human beings, no matter where they live, have an unconditional right to life, equality before the law and fair trials, freedom of thought, conscience and expression and freedom of religion. All these are rights that embody democratic values, not just Western ones.
Perhaps that is what has made Liu’s prize so galling to Beijing, which is known to desperately want to have a Chinese still living and working in China win a Nobel, any Nobel. Liu would certainly fit this category, except for the inconvenient fact that his work, especially in coauthoring Charter 08, goes against everything Beijing stands for.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman in Beijing told reporters with a straight face on Thursday that Liu had not been imprisoned because of anything he had said, but because he went beyond general criticism by trying to persuade others to act, something she said jeopardized society. She could have been quoting Alan Rickman’s character, the Interrogator, in the brilliant 1991 film Closet Land, who accuses a children’s book author of being “guilty of subliminal indoctrination” by trying, through her writings, to teach children to live without fear and being “part of the tribe that thinks too much.”
Perhaps Liu wasn’t the best choice of a Chinese dissident; there were several who said so in the run-up to the announcement of the prize last month. Since then, however, by its very acts, Beijing has made him a prime example of why the peace prize and Human Rights Day can be such powerful motivators and an inspiration to people around the world.
That is also why the list of no-shows among the 65 countries invited to attend the Oslo ceremony by virtue of having an embassy in that city served as a potent reminder of repressive regimes as well as Beijing’s might as a trading power and a UN Security Council member. China led the list of non-believers in free speech, which included Cuba, Russia, Iran, Kazakhstan and Vietnam. Trade or politics played a role in decisions by Sudan, Venezuela, Egypt, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Colombia, Morocco, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and, unfortunately, the Philippines.
The absence of a representative from Manila was the most glaring, despite the Philippine foreign secretary saying his country was not taking sides with China. His government is led by a man whose father was assassinated for standing up for the same rights and freedoms that Liu avows. The ghost of Benigno Aquino Jr will surely be haunting Malacanang Palace this weekend.