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
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 modern state system evolved from the idea of national sovereignty
established by the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. At the time, sovereignty
was assumed to be embodied in an autocratic ruler.
But ideas about sovereignty have changed over time. The American
Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of
Man and of the Citizen replaced the control of the autocrat with the
sovereignty of the people as the source of national power and
The idea of sovereignty changed again 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,
Today, universal human rights provide a check on arbitrary majorities
around the world, whether they are democracies or not. A majority in a
parliament cannot decide to harm the rights of a minority, nor vote for
laws that undermine human rights. And even though China is not a
constitutional democracy, it is a member of the United Nations, and it
has amended its Constitution to comply with the Declaration of Human
However, Mr. Liu’s imprisonment is clear proof that China’s criminal law
is not in line with its Constitution. He was convicted of “spreading
rumors or slander or any other means to subvert the state power or
overthrow the socialist system.” But in a world community based on
universal human rights, it is not a government’s task to stamp out
opinions and rumors. Governments are obliged to ensure the right to free
expression — even if the speaker advocates a different social system.
These are rights that the Nobel committee has long upheld by honoring
those who struggle to protect them with the Peace Prize, including
Andrei Sakharov for his struggle against human rights abuses in the
Soviet Union, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for his fight for
civil rights in the United States.
Not surprisingly, the Chinese government
has harshly criticized the award,
claiming that the Nobel committee unlawfully interfered with its
internal affairs and humiliated it in the eyes of the international
public. On the contrary, China should be proud that it has become
powerful enough to be the subject of debate and criticism.
Interestingly, the Chinese government is not the only one to criticize
the Nobel committee. Some people have said that giving the prize to Mr.
Liu may actually worsen conditions for human-rights advocates in China.
But this argument is illogical: it leads to the conclusion that we best
promote human rights by keeping quiet. If we keep quiet about China, who
will be the next country to claim its right to silence and
non-interference? This approach would put us on a path toward
undermining the Universal Declaration and the basic tenets of human
rights. We must not and cannot keep quiet. No country has a right to
ignore its international obligations.
China has every reason to be proud of what it has achieved in the last
20 years. We want to see that progress continue, and that is why we
awarded the Peace Prize to Mr. Liu. If China is to advance in harmony
with other countries and become a key partner in upholding the values of
the world community, it must first grant freedom of expression to all
It is a tragedy that a man is being imprisoned for 11 years merely
because he expressed his opinion. If we are to move toward the
fraternity of nations of which Alfred Nobel spoke, then universal human
rights must be our touchstone.
Thorbjorn Jagland is the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee.