In response to backlash from China for awarding the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo, one of the Middle Kingdom’s best-known democracy activists, Nobel Committee Chairman Thorbjorn Jagland penned a New York Times op-ed to defend the committee’s decision. He begins:
“The Chinese authorities’ condemnation of the Nobel Committee’s selection of Liu Xiaobo, the jailed political activist, as the winner of the 2010 Peace Prize inadvertently illustrates why human rights are worth defending.”
So far, so good. From scathing op-eds in government newspapers to cancellation of low-level meetings with Norway, China has not hesitated to express its fervent opposition to Liu’s newfound fame. Through its hasty and abrasive response–which included a detention of Liu’s wife–China has vindicated the Nobel Committee in full. Jagland continues:
“The authorities assert that no one has the right to interfere in China’s internal affairs. But they are wrong: international human rights law and standards are above the nation-state, and the world community has a duty to ensure they are respected.
The idea of sovereignty changed…during the last century, as the world moved from nationalism to internationalism. The United Nations, founded in the wake of two disastrous world wars, committed member states to resolve disputes by peaceful means and defined the fundamental rights of all people in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The nation-state, the declaration said, would no longer have ultimate, unlimited power.”
Here Jagland’s argument begins to founder. While the idea of an ultimately omnipotent world government is a tantalizing prospect to some, it is more the stuff of dreams than of reality. Composing the ranks of United Nations leadership are Russia, which exercises ownership over more than half of all local newspapers and periodicals, Uganda, whose military dabbles in child-soldiering, and China, where administrative detention remains a potent weapon at the government’s disposal. How is it that such countries are able to hold leadership posts within an organization premised on peace and progress? Simple. States have always been, and will foreseeably be, the primary units of the international system–hence ‘United Nations,’ denoting a unity (however tenuous) of various countries with disparate goals, priorities, and mores. If human rights are to be promoted, the process must occur organically and locally, and not by international imposition.
Strangely absent from Jagland’s piece is a clear explanation as to why governments should respect their citizens’ rights. At best, he seems to suggest that they should do so because, well, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights tells them to; and besides, it’s the right thing to do. This, however, is a farce. Oppressive governments are not going to pursue freedom because it is admirable or popular. Rather, a higher purpose must prevail: the individual must be seen to possess dignity and worth that is divinely bestowed and eternally bound. Finally, governments must be persuaded that genuine respect and freedom for the individual yields tremendous economic, political, and cultural fruit. A more complex foundation is essential.
Freedom advocates like Mr. Jagland are without doubt our strategic partners in the great cause of liberty. It is our duty, as those blessed with political and religious understanding, to communicate to them the true complexity of the battle we wage.