U.N. Human Rights Chief to Skip Nobel Ceremony; Accused of Caving In to China

By Patrick Goodenough | December 7, 2010 | 6:04am EST

Navanethem Pillay, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. (UN Photo by Jean-Marc Ferre)

(CNSNews.com) - When the Nobel Committee awards its peace prize to an imprisoned Chinese dissident on Friday in Oslo, the U.N.'s top human rights official will not be there.

Instead, Navi Pillay plans to deliver an address in Geneva at a function to mark Human Rights Day.

But when the Nobel committee announced in October that this year’s peace prize was going to Liu Xiaobo, Pillay hailed the decision as recognition of “a very prominent human rights defender.”

Her decision to skip the Nobel awards ceremony follows a Chinese campaign to denigrate the “criminal” Liu Xiaobo and urge countries not to support the award decision.

Human Rights Day is an annual U.N. event whose theme this year is to “highlight and promote the achievements of human rights defenders.”

Pillay’s office has denied that she has given in to Chinese pressure, describing the event in Geneva as a “major” one involving human rights defenders from various countries. According to the program, the participants are from the Gaza Strip, Austria, Guatemala, Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia. None is from China.

Pillay’s speech in Geneva is scheduled for around 10 a.m. on Friday. The Nobel ceremony is at 1 p.m. the same day, following by a banquet at 7 p.m. and a concert on Saturday evening.

This undated image provided by Voice of America shows Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, who has won the 2010 Nobel peace prize. (AP Photo/voanews.com)

Liu was sentenced last December to 11 years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power,” after co-authoring a manifesto calling for political reform.

A fellow Chinese dissident now in exile, Yang Jianli, released an open letter at the weekend critical Pillay and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for not planning to attend the Nobel ceremony.

Yang – like Liu a veteran of the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square – called Pillay’s decision not to go to Oslo “a clear and unequivocal abdication of her responsibilities as high commissioner, which I believe resulted from direct pressure from the Chinese government.”

It was particularly troubling, he said, because it follows U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s decision not to raise the Liu case with Chinese President Hu Jintao when the two met in Beijing in early November.

Ban came under fire at the time after his spokesman confirmed that “he did not discuss human rights” with Hu, although the subject had come up in meetings with other Chinese officials.

Before leaving Beijing, Ban in a speech at the Communist Party’s Central Party School did mention the importance of “respect for freedom of expression and the protection of its defenders” – although not specifically in reference to China, and without alluding to Liu.

Even before his visit, Ban’s low-key response to the award announcement had raised eyebrows. His brief statement, released a spokesman, did not call for Liu’s release and offered no criticism of China’s human rights record, praising it instead for progress in economic, political and human rights fields.

The cautious wording contrasted sharply with Ban’s enthusiastic response to the decision one year earlier to award the 2009 Nobel to President Obama – a decision he called “very wise” and said he supported “wholeheartedly.”

Beijing regards the decision to honor Liu as unacceptable interference in its sovereignty. It has urged governments not to attend the ceremony and at least half a dozen have declined invitations.

The authorities placed Liu’s wife, Liu Xia, under house arrest shortly after the award was announced and she will not be able to collect the prize on his behalf. China has also barred a number of friends and supporters wanting to attend the event from leaving the country.

A Geneva-based advocacy group that monitors the U.N.’s human rights apparatus urged Pillay Monday to reconsider her decision not to attend the event in Oslo.

Beijing’s powerful U.N. influence should never justify silence or reticence by the world body’s highest officials,” said U.N. Watch executive director Hillel Neuer.

He rejected the argument that her presence was required in Geneva.

“This is a minor event expected to yield minimal press coverage and world visibility, and she can be easily replaced by Deputy High Commissioner Kyung-wha Kang,” he said.

“By contrast, Ms. Pillay’s presence in Oslo would be noticed worldwide and send a powerful signal of accountability to the violators of human rights in China. I fear her planned absence may be sending a contrary signal of impunity.”

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