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U.N. rights chief slams China, defends Assange

Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, pressed China to release this year's Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, expressing hope that China will "come to recognize" the positive contribution the pro-democracy activist can make on Chinese society.

In a rare, wide-ranging press conference in Geneva, Pillay presented the U.N.'s strongest public criticism of China's imprisonment of Liu, who is serving an 11-year jail sentence for drafting the pro-democracy Charter 08 manifesto. Pillay also scolded China for placing Liu's wife, Liu Xia, under house arrest "that in my view is in contravention of Chinese national law."

The remarks by the South African rights advocate bore a stark contrast to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's highly circumspect comments on Liu's selection as the 2010 Nobel laureate. To date, Ban has never publicly called for his release, spoken out against the house arrest of his wife, or even officially congratulated him on the prize. Ban did not raise the matter in private talks with Chinese leader Hu Jintao, reserving discussion of the politically delicate matter for talks with lower-level Chinese officials.

Chinese offficials have responded to the Nobel Committee's decision to honor Liu, whom they consider a criminal, by lobbying foreign governments not to attend this week's award ceremony. "China's foreign ministry has boasted that the peace prize has been discredited because a large number of countries agree with China and will boycott the ceremony," wrote Keith Richburg of the Washington Post. "So far, China has listed 18 other countries not attending, including fellow communist regimes Cuba and Vietnam; Arab monarchies and authoritarian regimes including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia; and China's allies Venezuela, Pakistan, Sudan, and neighboring Russia and Kazakhstan. Iran, Colombia and Ukraine also said their ambassadors will not attend."

Beijing has also mounted a crackdown on Chinese activists and critics inside China. Pillay said that she was "dismayed" by the recent restrictions China has placed on a "widening circle" of activists and critics of the government. "In recent weeks at least twenty activists have been arrested or detained and more than 120 other cases of house arrest, travel restrictions, forced relocations and other acts of intimidation," she said.  Pillay defended her decision not to attend the Nobel award ceremony, saying that she never received a formal invitation to the event from the Nobel Peace Prize organization.

Pillay came under fire from Yang Jianli, a U.S.-based Chinese dissident and friend of Liu Xiaobo, who said that the rights leader had rejected an invitation to attend the meeting. At the time, Pillay's spokesman defended her decision not to go on the grounds that she had a previous obligation to host a Human Rights Day event in Geneva on the same day.

Pillay also weighed in on the mounting WikiLeaks controversy, decrying the efforts of politicians and other government officials to "pressure" banks, Internet providers, and credit card companies to cut off Wikileaks, saying such measures ran afoul of free-speech protections. "I am concerned about reports of pressure exerted on private companies including banks, credit card companies and Internet service providers to close down credit lines for donations to Wikileaks, as well as to stop hosting the website," she said.

"Taken as a whole [such measures] could be interpreted as an attempt to censor the publication of information thus potentially violating WikiLeaks right to freedom of expression. If WikiLeaks has committed any recognizable illegal act then this should be handled through the legal system and not through pressure and intimidation."

The remarks follow a high-level campaign, first initiated by Sen. Joseph Lieberman, to pressure companies, universities, and other institutions to prevent Wikileaks from disseminating confidential cables. A group of anonymous computer "hacktivists" have retaliated by mounting cyber attacks on the websites of institutions that they believe have been hostile to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

"This is truly what media would call a cyber war; it's just astonishing," Pillay said. "The WikiLeaks case raises complex human rights questions about balancing freedom of information, the right of people to know, and the need to protect national security or public order. This balancing act is a difficult one... So who is best to judge or strike at the balance, but courts of law?"

Pillay said the WikiLeaks documents have provided troubling new evidence that the Obama administration "knew about the widespread use of torture by Iraqi forces and yet proceeded with the transfer of thousands" of Iraqi detainees from U.S. custody to Iraqi custody between 2009 and 2010. "This could potentially constitute a serious breach of human rights law." She said she supported the efforts of U.N. human rights researchers who are seeking clarification from the U.S. and Iraqi authorities on the use of torture.  She urged all to investigate the reports "and bring to justice those responsible for human rights abuses."

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch.

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