Advancing a Free Society

China’s UN Vote

Monday, February 28, 2011

An extraordinary thing happened Saturday at the United Nations: China voted with all other members of the Security Council to sanction Libya’s rulers and initiate investigation by the International Criminal Court for “widespread and systemic attacks” against Libyans.

The vote is a welcome reprimand to the reprehensible actions of the Gaddafi clan and their henchmen (and -women). The UN has taken a strong stand in support of human rights, which despite being a central tenet of the organization’s mission, is too rarely seen in its actions.

Even more interesting, however, is that the government of the People’s Republic of China voted for the measure. The Security Council resolution not only condemned Libya’s government, but authorized seizing assets of individuals associated with the use of violence against protesters. China has traditionally stonewalled such resolutions, fearing the precedent could be applied to its own leaders.

Instead of defending a government’s right to sovereignty within its borders, China aligned itself with the view that rulers may be accountable to universal standards of respect for the rights of their citizenry. Given that autocrats in Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich states are arbiters of oil price and availability, China’s economic interests would seem to align with the governments being overthrown rather than the values they seek to prevent taking hold in their own country.

Good work by the governments of Britain, France, and our own country for bringing the Chinese government along. Hopefully they will not have privately promised China’s rulers these tools will never be used against them. As the Chinese probably wouldn’t have believed any assurances to that effect, it is more likely they now feel confident enough in their international weight that they would simply veto any resolutions against their own leadership.

But current governments don’t deserve all the credit. China was persuaded in 2006 to support a UN resolution establishing the norm for international action to protect people from war crimes, genocide, and ethnic cleansing, if states in which those are occurring will not or cannot act.

The Chinese government deserves credit, too – they made a choice. Perhaps China took to heart former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s warning that unless the UN addressed problems of international security it would be irrelevant.

China continues to harass and imprison democracy activists, as their shameful refusal to allow Liu Xiaobo to accept his Nobel Peace Prize last year attests, and they continue to keep the immoral regimes in North Korea and Myanmar beyond the reach of justice.

But the UN vote on Libya suggests that Chinese government might be inching toward a different path, and in the process distancing itself from the violent tactics they employed in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Maybe one day we’ll be able to look back at the Libya UN vote and see it as a turning point on China’s own progress toward a government that represents instead of represses its people.

(photo credit: United Nations Photo)