Liu Xiaobo

The man who wasn't there - Salil Shetty

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 10 December, 2010, 12:00am


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There is going to be one empty place at the Nobel Peace Prize awards ceremony today. Amid the pomp and circumstance, before a packed house of a thousand invited guests and dignitaries gathered for the century-old event, the chair of this year's recipient, Liu Xiaobo , will be vacant.

Had he been there, Liu would have sat on the podium alongside the members of the Nobel Committee in Oslo's cavernous city hall as he was honoured for his long and nonviolent struggle for fundamental human rights in China. He would have given a speech, accepted his medal and diploma and continued his call for peaceful legal and political reform in China. He would have posed for pictures, given interviews, briefly enjoyed the glow of international recognition and then he would have gone home.

Instead, Liu is in jail. He is serving an 11-year sentence for 'inciting subversion of state power' for his part as the leading author behind Charter 08, a manifesto calling for the recognition of fundamental human rights in China. Liu has consistently maintained that the sentence violates both China's constitution and basic human rights, but, like many others in China who have chosen to speak out, he has been severely punished.

Nobel rules require the winner or his or her immediate family to personally accept the prize. Liu's enforced absence means that for the first time since 1938, the peace prize will not be awarded at the ceremony. His wife could have collected the award for him, but she has been detained by Chinese authorities and is under house arrest in Beijing. Dozens of others who wanted to attend the ceremony have also been detained or forbidden from leaving China.

The Chinese government might see this is as a victory, but they would be mistaken. Despite a campaign of intense political pressure, intimidation and threats, they have not defeated Liu or the Nobel Committee. Because, while the other chairs in the packed hall on the day of the awards ceremony will each hold only one person, Liu's empty chair will hold much more.

It will hold the thousands of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience languishing in Chinese jails or under house arrest, victims of prosecution and persecution simply for having the courage to voice their views.

People like Tian Xi , who is caught in a legal limbo and facing possible indefinite detention as he battles for compensation for being infected with HIV and hepatitis from a blood transfusion as a child.

Or Zhao Lianhai , who is serving a two-and-a-half-year sentence for seeking justice for babies made ill by tainted powdered milk. Or Chen Guangcheng, a blind human rights activist kept under unofficial house arrest after serving a four-year prison sentence for his involvement in a legal action against forced sterilisations and abortions carried out by the authorities on thousands of women in Shandong province .

It will hold the memory of China's attempts to sabotage this year's award with political pressure, arm-twisting and economic blackmail used to try to intimidate the international community into a boycott of the ceremonies. The fact that, despite the pressure and threats, China could only cajole a handful of countries into staying away reflects the unacceptable nature of its demands. Governments and international institutions must continue to resist this type of arm-twisting.

On the 60th anniversary of Human Rights Day, China's actions will help to focus the world's attention on its abysmal record on human rights. The millions forced to leave their homes as a result of the massive construction projects. The outrage of Tiananmen Square. The abuses in Tibet . And the ongoing persecution of Falun Gong.

It is curious that such a powerful nation as China should feel so threatened by just one man.

The truth is that Liu Xiaobo is more than just one man. He represents the ideals of the Nobel Peace Prize and the hopes and aspirations of millions of Chinese who are silenced by the crushing weight of their government.

The Chinese government may have succeeded in keeping Liu's chair empty, but, in his absence, that chair speaks volumes.

Salil Shetty is the secretary general of Amnesty International. Amnesty International won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977