Perhaps, it is worth recalling what exactly the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo was jailed for. Here it is from the Preamble of Charter 08, a manifesto released on December 9, 2008, the document that was considered so subversive it led to this former literature professor being sentenced to jail for eleven years (translation courtesy of HRIC or Human Rights in China).
This year marks 100 years since China’s [first] Constitution, the 60th anniversary of the promulgation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 30th anniversary of the birth of the Democracy Wall, and the 10th year since the Chinese government signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Having experienced a prolonged period of human rights disasters and challenging and tortuous struggles, the awakening Chinese citizens are becoming increasingly aware that freedom, equality, and human rights are universal values shared by all humankind, and that democracy, republicanism, and constitutional government make up the basic institutional framework of modern politics. A “modernization” bereft of these universal values and this basic political framework is a disastrous process that deprives people of their rights, rots away their humanity, and destroys their dignity. Where is China headed in the 21st century? Will it continue with this “modernization” under authoritarian rule, or will it endorse universal values, join the mainstream civilization, and build a democratic form of government? This is an unavoidable decision.
In deciding to boycott the Nobel Prize conferment on Liu, the Philippines according to President Noynoy Aquino or PNoy was putting the interest of its citizens (particularly those on death row without reprieve in China now numbering six for allegedly smuggling drugs) above that of a foreigner. In sending its regrets to the Nobel Foundation, the government was seeking to appease China over a series of incidents that had strained bilateral relations. Here is what PNoy had to say against his detractors from human rights groups
It’s not their call to make the decisions, it’s my call. We have immediate problems, amongst them all those incarcerated in China. We’ve had strained relations because of the incident and so many other things, my interest has to be first with the Filipinos, I think nobody will begrudge me kung (if ) secondary interest ang (are) any other nationality, I did swear an oath to defend and to safeguard all Filipinos everywhere, inuna ko Pilipinas, kung kasalanan yun uulit ulitin ko yung kasalanan na yun (I placed the Philippines first, and I would do it again regardless of what others may think).
Fair enough, some might say. But, then again when PNoy’s father, the late Sen Ninoy Aquino, was incarcerated and sentenced to death by firing squad on trumped up charges of treason, it was in part due to the appeals of the same international human rights groups to Western leaders backing the dictator then Pres Marcos that he was granted a lease on life. If these leaders had thought the way PNoy had; for example, if they had thought that the rights of a dissident in a country led by an ally were not as important as the safety of their own people (and for a time they did just that), then things would have turned out differently back then.
The core question here is was it really in the Philippines’ interest to boycott the ceremony and hand China a diplomatic coup over the United States in the process at a time when its power and prestige are waning? And to do so on such a significant date as the commemoration of the the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document which the Philippines through former UN Sec Gen Carlos P Romulo co-drafted, was just utterly distasteful (it makes you wonder what was passing through the mind of Foreign Affairs Sec Alberto Romulo at the time).
Not that we should be big fans of America and the way it has conducted its foreign policy in this and other parts of the world over the past century when it reached the zenith of its global might, but does the Philippines still have a coherent policy to speak of when it comes to this arena? Ever since the execution of Flor Contemplacion in Singapore back in 1995 and the public backlash against Philippine government officials that followed, it has been the policy of successive administrations to avoid such incidents at all cost. The question that emerges is could there have been a better way to smoothen ties with our immediate neighbor without having to sacrifice such a fundamental belief?
Perhaps if our diplomats had handled the matter with a little more foresight, tact and diplomacy (as their job descriptions suggest), the government would not have painted itself into a tight corner. The president would not have been forced into such an awkward position of having to cover for the mixed messages springing out of the Department of Foreign Affairs.
For the sake of the safety of its citizens overseas, the United States would never countenance sacrificing its core principles in the same manner. And the reason is that that nation regards America as not just consisting of its people, but of an idea. And it is that Idea (that all men are created equal) that they are willing to put their citizens in harm’s way in defense of. They may not always justly determine what constitutes a clear and present threat to Freedom, but they have at least demonstrated time and time again a capacity to offer their blood and treasure in pursuit of that ideal.
Perhaps our decision-makers ought to heed the words of PNoy’s late father who penned the following passage during the dark days of authoritarian rule
Leaders I admired, whose advice I sought
Became fallen idols, their souls were bought,
Their conscience they bartered for soft convenience,
Due to despicable cowardice, they’ve lost their patience.
Leaders became dealers, begging for part of the spoils,
Forgetting the value, the essence of the hottest toil,
Paralyzed by fear, they joined the amoral dictator,
Defending, waving the bloody flag of the new oppressor.
The pillars of society became the props of tyranny,
Be realistic, they urged, if not for safety, for money.
It is useless to resist, the tyrant is too strong,
Yet aware, with their help the tyranny will prolong.
In bartering for the safety of its citizens overseas, has this administration incurred too high a cost and become a prop of tyranny in China? In reference to George Orwell’s Animal Farm , where the dominant pigs wrote “some animals are more equal than others”, I ask are some people’s rights more human than others?
Photo: Eleanor Roosevelt holding the International Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948.