Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 01:01 | SYDNEY
Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 01:01 | SYDNEY

Nobel Prize shames China, but will that matter?

14 October 2010 14:29

Danielle Celermajer is Director of the Masters of Human Rights program at Sydney University.

It would be easy to join the throng of commentators slamming China for the human rights violations against which Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo has been protesting, for the human rights violation of throwing him in gaol for doing so, and for Beijing's antagonistic response to the award.

Without doubt, there is much to condemn. But given that the web is crowded with this type of response, I'd like to ask what is ultimately the more critical question: is public international condemnation an effective strategy for effecting social and political reform in China' After all, the international community is, one hopes, more interested in making a positive difference to the lives of Chinese citizens than it is in basking in the comfort of the high moral ground.

This strategy relies on two key assumptions. The first is that the values which underwrite the Universal Declaration of Human Rights do in fact have a global appeal and the power to influence local norms. In fact, when Liu Xiaobo co-authored the infamous Charter 08, for which he was gaoled, he explicitly located this document alongside the 60th anniversary of the UDHR and the 10th anniversary of China's signing the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, even before referencing Chinese legal and constitutional protections of human rights.

By calling the document 'Charter 08' he was also bringing into play the famous Charter 77 written in Czechoslovakia by a similar coalition of civil society actors, and identified as a critical moment in the social movement that eventually brought down the Soviet regime.

One of the contentions and hopes of the human rights movement is that, along with the globalisation of trade, capital and communications comes the globalisation of human rights principles, and that, just as China has become an avid participant in the former dimensions of globalisation, it will embrace the latter. 

The second assumption is that 'naming and shaming' (that is, holding a country's human rights performance up against its rhetorical commitments), is an effective way to get it to honour those commitments. Realists are highly sceptical about this assumption, but it remains the preferred strategy of the international human rights community. In fact, the principal reason we try to get states to make rhetorical commitments is that we believe that, even if they do so in the most cynical manner, such 'rhetorical self-binding' will end up coming back to bind their actions to their words.

So does this strategy work'

Recent empirical studies indicate mixed results. Some have found that neither rhetorical commitments to non-binding international law nor naming and shaming significantly impact human rights performance. The more exacting studies however, find that these two strategies can be effective, but only when combined with strong domestic civil society activism and support. In other words, the message of the international community needs to be synched with the message of the domestic community, or at least a good part of it that is pushing for the same changes.

If this is the case, then supporting local activists like Liu Xiaobo and the civil society organisations they create is the most important strategy the international community can pursue.

As we know all too well from the tragic failures of recent history, imposing political values and systems without building a local social infrastructure of support can be dangerous. What we need to hope is that Chinese authorities will, under pressure from international condemnation, make the space in which local activism can take root. If that occurs, we might imagine that the next Nobel Peace Prize to be awarded to a Chinese national will go to someone who, like the previous winner, is acting from the offices of political power and not the penitentiary.

Photo by Flickr user VoxAsia, used under a Creative Commons license.