Turtle Bay

Ban Ki-moon’s China Problem

After staying silent on the issue throughout his current trip to the country, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon finally addressed the issue of China’s human rights record. In a speech at the Central Party School that marked the end of his week-long visit to China, Ban claimed that Beijing’s new stature brought with it fresh ...

After staying silent on the issue throughout his current trip to the country, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon finally addressed the issue of China’s human rights record. In a speech at the Central Party School that marked the end of his week-long visit to China, Ban claimed that Beijing’s new stature brought with it fresh responsibilities, including the need to embrace human rights and respect freedom of expression.

But the political damage had already been done as human rights advocates and influential publications turned on Ban, raising questions about his fitness to serve a second term as the U.N. leader. This morning, the New York Times called on the United States to reconsider its support for a second term for Ban, slamming him for being "shamefully silent" on human rights in his meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao. Ban "is the guardian of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," added a Christian Science Monitor reporter. "If he can’t speak his mind to the Chinese on human rights, who can?"

Ban’s China visit had been fraught with controversy even before he arrived. Ban infuriated rights groups by failing to congratulate Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese dissident, after he received the Nobel Peace Prize. Liu was sentenced to 11 years in prison after writing the "Charter 08" petition calling for Chinese leaders to abide by the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, of which China is a signatory. Last week, a top U.N. advisor, Sha Zukang, presented an award to a retired Chinese General, Chi Haotian, who was in command of troops responsible for shooting unarmed civilians in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Earlier this week, Ban’s spokesman, Martin Nesirky, told reporters that Ban had not raised the issue of human rights in a one-on-one meeting with Chinese leader Hu Jintao that focused on climate change, the global economic crisis, and China’s role in U.N. peacekeeping. Nesirky subsequently said Ban had raised human rights "with other senior leaders." But he refused to name them or characterize the nature of those discussions.

The dispute over Ban’s China visit comes as the former South Korean diplomat is preparing a re-election campaign to gain a second five-year term as U.N. chief at the end of the 2011. His conciliatory approach to China, which is one of five U.N. powers that can veto his re-election, has drawn criticism from rights groups.

"Ban didn’t just duck the human rights issue; his office went out of his way to say he never mentioned it to Hu," Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch told Turtle Bay. "That’s an abdication of his duty to promote core U.N. values. Ban may have succeeded in convincing Hu that he is the Secretary General China wants, but the Chinese people or the rest of the world do not want a muted Secretary General, particularly at a moment when the Chinese government is hounding Chinese dissidents in the wake of Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace Prize. Ban will merit another term only if he shows courage and principle, even when inconvenient."

Other rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights In China, also weighed in. Corrine-Barbara Francis, Amnesty’s senior researcher on China, said Ban’s failure to raise concerns about China’s human rights was "a failure of the U.N. system, a failure to the Chinese people."

Before the latest China controversy, Ban appeared assured of securing support from the U.N.’s key powers for a second term. The Obama Administration has studiously sidestepped the issue. The office of Ambassador Susan E. Rice declined to comment on Ban’s position on human rights in China.

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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