U.N. rights chief urges governments to free dissenters

U.N. rights chief urges governments to free dissenters

By Robert Evans, Reuters
Dec 8, 2010
The U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay, under fire for declining to attend the Nobel Peace Prize award to a Chinese dissident, called Wednesday for the release of all prisoners jailed for promoting democracy.

The appeal, in an advance text of a speech she is to deliver in Geneva to mark World Human Rights Day Friday, when the Chinese jailed rights campaigner Liu Xiaobo will be honored in absentia in Oslo.

“On this Human Rights Day, I call on governments to acknowledge that criticism is not a crime and to release all those people who have been detained for peacefully exercising their fundamental rights to defend democratic principles and human rights,” Pillay said.

Although she referred to dissenting journalists and teachers and to the families of imprisoned dissidents being harassed — which could apply to Liu — the former South African judge did not mention him by name in her two-page text.

The speech, issued by her office in Geneva, said advances across the world in human rights were due to “the enormous efforts of hundreds of thousands of largely unsung heroes” and the commitment and courage of human rights defenders.

Pillay, who has been outspoken on rights violations in countries such as Iran and Sri Lanka and has criticized Russia, China and the United States in the past, is facing criticism for turning down an invitation to Oslo Friday.

Her office says she can not go because she is presiding over the rights day ceremonies at the United Nations’ European headquarters in Geneva, to be addressed by campaigners for human rights from around the world.

Geneva-based non-governmental organization U.N. Watch, referring to what diplomats say is strong pressure from Beijing that has led to some 20 countries saying they will not attend the Nobel ceremony, urged her not to “kowtow” to China, which says Liu is a criminal.

Chinese dissidents in the West have accused Pillay of abdicating her responsibilities and newspapers in Europe said her refusal to go reflected U.N. impotence in the face of a major power such as China.

But some diplomats whose nations will be represented at Oslo expressed sympathy for Pillay, whose often feisty pronouncements have angered countries including China in the U.N. Human Rights Council, where a developing country bloc holds sway.

“If she wants to retain any chance of influencing China on rights in general, given the belligerent attitude of the Chinese over the prize she had little choice but to stay away,” said one European envoy who asked not to be named.

Other diplomats said Pillay’s decision may have been dictated by her chief, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, himself under fire from rights groups for not pressing Beijing to free Liu, serving an 11-year sentence on subversion charges.

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