International News

Noble Peace Prize for Liu Xiabo: a deserved prize, loaded with significance

The fully deserved award of the Nobel Prize Peace to Liu Xiabo (a human rights activist, a leader of the Tiananmen Square uprising, political prisoner and the inspiration for the Charter 08 Movement) prompts a review of many of the cliches and reflections linked to a prize that has been highly controversial throughout its history.

First, this year's prize is fully deserved, which has not been the case with some of the winners. Leaving aside his links to Tiananmen Square, Liu Xiabo, vice-president of the Chinese Pen Club and currently serving an 11-year prison sentence, is the main writer and benchmark for Charter 08, a document inspired by Vaclav Havel's Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia (1977). This is a document which advocates a coherent and robust political alternative for the first time in China, based on the need to fully comply with the civil rights recognised in the Chinese constitution (to date only rhetorically, of course), while arguing for a reform process leading to a democratic and federal China. The Charter has already been signed by thousands of people, and for the Chinese Government, it is the main threat for the future. It is therefore a third source of concern for the establishment in the face of international pressure, together with the revolts in Tibet and Xinjiang. The prize is therefore very welcome, as is the support for the cause of Charter 08, which aims to achieve an unambiguous political opening by the regime, with full respect for civil and political liberties. The response from the Government, which was harsh towards the prizewinner as well as to the outside world, shows that it it is aware of the potential of Charter 08 and of the support and publicity that the Prize entails.

Second, it is an example of how the prize alternates between negative peace (prizes for peace negotiations and/or agreements, disarmament treaties, etc.) and positive peace (the struggle for human rights and justice and development) and between continents. This year, after last year's preventive Nobel for Obama, based on the change in tone in international relations, and what this could do in the arena of nuclear disarmament and the Middle East conflict, it was time for a positive peace prize and a winner from Asia or Africa. As is usually the case in prizes awarded for positive peace, the prize went to a specific individual despite having a collective dimension. The bishop of Chiapas, Samuel Ruiz, put it magnificently when he presented the Nobel Prize to Rigoberta Menchú, whom he sheltered in his residence when she fled Guatemala: "There are hundreds of Rigobertas and when she is given the prize, the prize is given to all of them!" We should not forget therefore that the struggle for political and social rights under very adverse conditions of repression is still something that is unfortunately very common and very difficult in many places in the world.

Third, it also highlights the frequently political nature of the prize. To put it another way, the explanation for Liu Xiabo winning the prize, rather than the three or four other human rights activists that deserve it as much as he does, is that it enables the West to put pressure on China, a strong competitor, without involving key economic interests directly. This would explain the rapid response from the United States, with President Obama calling for the immediate release of Xiao - a call which we at the ICIP fully support - a demand that had not been formally made at the high level meeting in 2009.

In the early seventies, when China had not yet taken its place at the UN (it was occupied by Taiwan) and had not re-established diplomatic relations with much of the world, ping-pong diplomacy was invented. Now the West seems to have decided to use Nobel Peace Prize diplomacy.