EDITORIAL: Oh silence, most despicable silence

Tue, Jan 22, 2008 - Page 8

Soon after Beijing made its successful bid to host the Olympic Games, human rights organizations, academics and some publications intensified their scrutiny of the manner in which the Chinese state apparatus was dealing with dissent, media freedoms and human rights in general.

But while this happened, governments did not follow suit and failed to voice official objections to the fact that Beijing has broken most of its promises.

Just last week, reports that Beijing was requesting that Chinese nationals who obtained tickets for the opening and closing ceremonies submit personal information and a recent photograph -- developments that should have raised eyebrows in world capitals -- passed with little comment.

Under the pretense that the scheme would "eradicate fake tickets [and] control speculative ticket reselling," what Beijing is doing is collecting background data on everybody who will be at the Olympic venue at a time when the world's media will be looking its way. Anyone whom the security apparatus suspects could create "image problems" of the type that were seen at Tiananmen Square in 1989 will be screened out beforehand and be unable to attend the "celebrations."

In a way, this new scheme is just an extension of Beijing's police-state-like preparations for the games, in which foreign "allies" -- which for months have provided it with lists of people and organizations that may cause "trouble" should they participate at the Olympics -- have been complicit.

Perhaps even more troubling is the fact that states -- especially Western democracies that, on paper at least, would be expected to behave more responsibly than China -- seem to find it increasingly difficult to openly talk about human rights abuses, even among themselves.

A prominent example of this is Canada's decision to rewrite the manual on torture it produces for its diplomats after the US and Israel complained that their countries had been listed among the states that employ such practices. Rather than defend the authors of the report or explain his government's position on the matter, Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Maxime Bernier said the list had "mistakenly" included the two countries and did not represent the official view in Ottawa.

The document -- which was obtained by Amnesty International -- was summarily recast as an embarrassment, at best a mere rag to "stimulate discussion and debate." Its new version, Ottawa promised, will not include Israel and the US. Case closed.

Next thing you know, Beijing, too, will be complaining about its inclusion on the rogues' gallery of torturers or, as Jerusalem and Washington did, it will split hairs and argue that waterboarding and sleep deprivation do not constitute torture.

One by one, in the name of good relations, names will be removed from lists -- those that are made public, at least -- to ensure that no allied government is insulted by the truth.

It is altogether deplorable that in this day and age governments would abandon the human rights discourse -- except for cynical purposes, such as to provide a post facto rationale for the invasion of Iraq, or in the ongoing campaign to isolate Iran.

What this means for all those hapless dissidents or suspects who face torture, unjust imprisonment and other forms of humiliation is that they should no longer place their hopes in governments. Not even the supposedly "good" ones.