The Long Human-Rights March

Amid many disheartening developments for democracy and the rule of law worldwide, a glimmer of joy recently shone through the gloom. The Chinese poet Liu Xia – the 57-year old widow of the renowned human-rights activist and political dissident Liu Xiaobo – has made it to Europe.

NEW YORK – There has been a lot of bad news lately on the human-rights front. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has resumed air strikes on his people, killing opposition fighters and civilians alike. Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party continues to make headway in its quest to destroy judicial independence. The United States Supreme Court upheld President Donald Trump’s travel ban, which prevents immigrants, refugees, and visa holders from Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, Venezuela, and Yemen from entering the country.

But a glimmer of joy recently showed through the gloom of these and other disheartening developments: the Chinese poet Liu Xia – the 57-year old widow of the renowned human-rights activist and political dissident Liu Xiaobo – has made it to Europe.

Liu’s husband, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, died of liver cancer last year, nearly eight years into an 11-year prison sentence in China for drafting a petition demanding democracy and respect for human rights. When he was awarded the Nobel in 2010, the Chinese authorities barred his family from travelling to Oslo to accept the prize, placed his wife under house arrest, and allowed her little contact with her husband. The Chinese government continued to monitor and restrict her movements closely, even after his death.

In another era, the US might have intervened, with the president or perhaps another official, such as the secretary of state, meeting with Chinese authorities to demand Liu’s freedom. Today, however, it was German Chancellor Angela Merkel who took the stand, asking Chinese President Xi Jinping to release Liu. Thanks to Merkel’s diplomacy, Liu was granted permission to go to Germany.

Liu’s release amounts to a small but important step forward in the long and difficult march toward a world in which all people’s basic human rights are protected – the ultimate objective of the international human-rights movement. That movement has its origins in the anti-slavery organizations that emerged in England in the second half of the eighteenth century, and it became a true global force when Amnesty International was founded in 1961.

Amnesty began identifying “prisoners of conscience” – people imprisoned for peacefully expressing their political, religious, or other conscientiously held beliefs, or for their cultural identity – all over the world. Their personal stories attracted attention to the human-rights cause, and, by the late 1970s, inspired the establishment of many organizations around the world that promote human rights on an ongoing basis.

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Forty years ago, I helped to create one such organization, Helsinki Watch, which evolved over the next several years into what is known today as Human Rights Watch. Our work went beyond trying to free individual prisoners of conscience and has included efforts to end armed conflicts, such as in Central America in the 1980s, in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and in the Middle East today, or at least to mitigate the harm they wrought.

That work probably contributed to saving a lot of lives. But neither Human Rights Watch nor any other committed human-rights organization has ever stopped the carnage of war. The suffering that persists in countries around the world is a constant reminder of how much work remains to be done to realize human rights for all.

Against this background, photos of Liu’s smiling face as she arrived at the airport in Helsinki, on her way to Berlin, are a welcome development, highlighting the value of protecting the rights of even one person. Her story is also a powerful reminder of the difference it makes when the highest offices of government are held by politicians who are prepared to translate their values into policy.

This is not the first time Merkel has stood up for what is right. Most notably, in 2015, when the European Union was being inundated by refugees from conflict zones like Syria, she introduced Europe’s most compassionate refugee policy – a decision that has invited considerable criticism and political pressure. In the process, Merkel, the daughter of an East German pastor, set an example of personal decency that has gone a long way toward restoring the good name of a country that, three-quarters of a century ago, was responsible for some of the largest-scale human-rights violations ever recorded.

Given her history of expending political capital to do the right thing, it is not surprising that Merkel took up Liu’s case. But that does not make it any less commendable. On the contrary, it underscores just how important values-driven political leaders can be in advancing human rights in the world – and how tragic it is that there are so few of them.


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