Liu Xiaobo — Nobel Peace Prize ceremony

In the New York Review [Jan 13, 2011, p56] Perrry Link movingly describes the ceremony which took place in Oslo on 10th December: ” The presentation speech was made by Thorbjorn Jagland, the chairman of the Prize Committee, who is a former Prime Minister of Norway …Only a few minutes into his speech, he said: ‘We regret that the laureate is not present here today. He is in isolation in a prison in north east China… This fact alone shows the award was necessary and appropriate.’ When he finished reading these words the audience of about a thousand people interrupted with applause. The applause continued for about thirty seconds and then, when it seemed that the time had come for it to recede, it suddenly took on a second life. It continued on and on, and then turned into a standing ovatioon, lasting three or four minutes ….In the remainder of his speech Jagland stressed the close connections among human rights, democracy and peace. He reviewed the four other occasions in Nobel history when a Peace Prize laureate was prevented from traveling to Oslo: in 1935, the Nazis held Carl von Ossietzky in prison; in 1975 Andrei Sakharov was not allowed to leave the USSR; in 1983, Lech Walesa feared he would be barred from reentering Poland if he went to Oslo; and in 1991, Aung Sang Suu Kyi was under house arrest in Burma……After Jagland’s speech the Norwegian actress Liv Ullman read the full text of the statement that Liu Xiaobo had prepared for his trial in Beijing in December 2009. The statement is called ‘I have no enemies’ and it was significant that Ullman read it in full because, at Liu’s 2009 trial, his own reading had been cut off after 14 minutes.The presiding judge that day had interrupted him, declaring that the defendant could not be allowed.. more time than the prosecutor, who had summed up Liu’s crimes in only fourteen minutes. Ullman’s reading took about twenty-five inutes and was beautiful. She held the audience in immaculate silence ….The climactic moment of the ceremony came when Jagland, unable to hand the Nobel diploma and medal to Liu Xiaobo, placed both upon the empty chair where he was supoosed to have ben sitting …”

Published in: Uncategorized on January 27, 2011 at 6:38 pm  Comments (6)  

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  1. John, many thanks for pointing us at this important and moving article in the NYB (by the way, the full text is online at It did however raise an obvious question in my mind. Is the increasingly common practice of using the Nobel Peace Prize to support and protect dissidents who are being persecuted by repressive régimes really what the Peace Prize was founded for? It’s inherently of course a good and heartening thing to do, and it wins enthusiastic approval on a global scale; it annoys authoritarian governments and makes it more costly for them to intensify their persecution (although it also makes it impossible for them to release the imprisoned dissident in question, for fear of seeming to surrender weakly to foreign pressure, a point worth bearing in mind); it’s a liberal gesture that gives us all a warm (if essentially sentimental) glow inside.

    But it’s not immediately clear what all this has got to do with peace. If the main purpose of this hugely celebrated prize is to provide an incentive for political and other international statespersons and leaders to make a special effort in peace-making — conflict resolution, good offices, negotiation of compromises, invigoration of a peace process, ingenuity in proposing routes to agreement — then awards to dissidents might actually be something of a distraction.

    If we look down the list of Nobel Peace Prize winners over the years, we find a curious mixture of categories of laureates: some, both institutions and individuals, certainly satisfy the criterion of having been distinguished peace-makers; others look more like worthy people who have bravely resisted oppressive régimes or equally worthy institutions, such as UNICEF, which do undeniably good work even though not obviously related to peace.

    It seems worth-while to pose the question whether the Nobel Peace Prize might not usefully return to what is presumably its core purpose, namely to recognise and reward peace-makers? There are plenty of other organisations, such as Amnesty International (itself a Nobel Peace Prize winner!) whose declared purposes include drawing international attention to the plight of victims of oppression, and by publicising them, provide them with some degree of protection. Every time the Nobel Peace Prize is used for the same purpose, it incurs an opportunity cost. I can’t help feeling that this is a pity.


  2. PS: I see that the terms of reference of the committee that awards the Nobel Peace Prize are from Nobel’s will:

    “the Peace Prize should be awarded to the person who
    …shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”

    Some of this obviously needs to be reinterpreted in the light of changed circumstances. But it’s surely difficult to argue that using the prize to expose and penalise repressive governments for persecuting worthy individuals is a good way of promoting “fraternity between nations”. It’s much more likely to exacerbate friction and bad feeling between nations. But this possible objection will certainly have exercised the best minds in the Norwegian committee and they continue to use the prize in this way, so presumably they have found a way to justify it.


    • The comment advances two propositions. The first is that the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo is misconceived because it was based upon his human rights activism which has nothing to do with Peace– the object of the Prize, and the second and related proposition that it would be useful if the awarding of the Prize were confined strictly to its original purpose, peace between nations.I do not agree with either proposition.

      It would of course have been possible for the Nobel Committee to have adopted a literal construction of Nobel’s Will along the lines of that suggested in the Comment. Such a construction would exclude Prizes for action which does not directly result in Peace between nations but which results in establishing conditions aiding its preservation.Thus, on such a construction, General Marshall would have been denied the 1953 Prize for his efforts in the creation of the Marshall Plan because that Plan did not directly result in Peace but only — even if substantially — contributed to it.
      Such a construction has never been adopted by the Nobel Committee. Also, it would be out of accord with the way donations to charities are legally interpreted in common law countries[and it may be assumed in Civil law systems which in general adopt a freer and more liberal construction of instruments].In the case of charitable gifts,the focus of construction is upon giving effect to the general charitable intention and that is so even where it is no longer possible to apply the gift to the particular donee or mode specified in the Will.In that event, the Court will apply the gift in other ways consistent with the testator’s general intention [Thus, suppose a testator endowed a named mental hospital relieving those suffering from dementia and the hospital ceased to exist after the Will had been made but before death, the Court would not allow the gift to fail but would direct the Fund go to the relief of the mentally ill in a way devised by the Court] The sensible reason for this is that an endowment is intended to be lasting and that the general intention is taken to supersede any particular expression of it. Thus, to take one example, in the case of Nobel’s Will the references in the Peace Prize gift to ‘Peace Congresses’ and ‘Standing Armies’, then contemporary peace activities, would not be construed as limiting the gift or as having any current relevance.
      From the outset the Nobel Committee have taken the broad view mentioned above. The first 1901 Prize was awarded to Henri Dunant the founder of the Red Cross in 1863 and, it might be added, that the Red Cross itself was subsequently awarded the Prize in 1917, 1944 and 1963. The Red Cross does not though negotiate Peace agreements between nations. It contributes to Peace by bringing to the attention of all nations not only the atrocities of war but that the enemy, whether wounded or prisoner,is also a human being;and by giving effect to these universal values expressed in the Geneva Conventions .
      Literally, Nobel’s Will refers to peace between nations. The 20th and the present century have witnessed increased violence or the potential for it within nations. But consonant with a broad construction,the Nobel Committee awarded the Prize in 1960 to the South African Albert Luthuli, then leader of the ANC, for his opposition to apartheid and for inspiring the ANC at that time to adopt non-violence [the ANC’S position changed after Sharpeville]. Another example was Martin Luther King who was awarded the Prize in 1964 for his leadership of the civil rights movement in America and his reliance on non-violence.In these intra-national situations human rights and Peace are intertwined.
      The Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 reads “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world and whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people”.The reference to ‘Peace’ in the Preamble was not a rhetorical flourish on the part of the drafters. The nexus between Peace and human rights had been emphasised as early as 1942 when the Allies first described themselves as the ‘United Nations’.The United Nations Charter, when adopted in San Francisco in June 1945 announced the resolve of the United Nations ‘to reaffirm our faith in fundamental human rights’ and Article 55 of the Charter states that ‘human rights helps to create conditions of stability …’ . The Charter and the Declaration were established in tandem.
      What led post-war statesmen to this was that the repression of minorities in Nazi Germany and the ‘barbarous acts’ mentioned in the Preamble had fomented German aggression.It was clear to them that these human rights violations were incompatible with a peaceful world. For similar reasons the German Ossietsvky, who opposed both Nazi militarism and Jewish persecution, was awarded the 1935 Peace Prize. [Like Liu Xiaobo, he was refused permission by his government to attend the Peace Prize ceremony.]
      Pre-war Japan represents another example of the relationship between militarism, fierce nationalism and denial of human rights. It may be contrasted in this respect with democratic post-war and peaceful Japan.
      The award to Liu Xiaobo is attacked in the Comment.I should have thought that a peaceful China is of moentous impoertance to the World and that there could be few greater contributions to a peaceful China than a democratic China upholding human rights.
      The substantial and growing military power of China is supported by a potentially dangerous nationalism. The military’s power is ‘contained’, somewhat precariously , by influences within the Communist Party. Certain points for potential force and/or aggression are evident — Taiwan and the national minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang[who were repressed when they rose up so recently].
      Liu Xiaobo, in Charter 08 set out the peaceful answer to this: “A democratic China should seek to act as a responsible major power contributing towards peace and development in the Asian Pacific Region by approaching others in a spirit of equality and fairness. In Hong Kong and Macau we should support the freedoms that already exist. With respect to Taiwan, we should declare our commitment to the principles of freedom and democracy and then negotiating as equals and ready to compromise seek a formula for peaceful unification. We should approach disputes in the national minority areas of China with an open mind seeking ways to find a workable framework within which all ethnic and religious groups can flourish. We should aim ultimately at a federation of democratic communities of China.”
      Indeed, Taiwan surely represents the clearest example in the context of China of the nexus between peace and human rights. A democratic China and democratic Taiwan united without force is imaginable: a unity based upon the dubious ‘one country two systems’policy would, to say the least,be fraught if it were ever to come about without force.
      The Charter makes the general point effectively : “The succession of political disasters in China’s recent history is a direct consequence of the ruling regime’s disregard for human rights.”

      It is perhaps symbolic of Liu’s own attitude towards Peace that he should have titled his statement to the Court – which the Judge prevented him from completing—“I have no enemies”.

      Turning to the proposition that the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize should be more closely confined to those who directly negotiate Peace: I would be averse to that. It would tend to ‘lock in’ diplomatic achievement as the sole criterion.

      Diplomatic achievement has been rightly recognized, but there are dangers if it were to become the sole or even the main criterion. The reason for this is that often, although not always, diplomatic achievement has been based upon the pursuit of national interest in which Peace is only the most expedient outcome.

      The award in these circumstances can produce a well-founded cynicism. When Henry Kissinger was awarded the Prize in 1968,Tom Lehrer announced his retirement, explaining that “satire could no longer compete with reality”.

  3. John, I am flattered to find my tentative question given such a comprehensive and thoroughly sourced reply. I am bound to say, however, that your reply has actually reinforced my initial doubts about the propriety of using the Nobel Peace Prize to recognise and reward dissidents in countries with repressive régimes, on the implied grounds that some such dissidents champion human rights (it would be strange if they did not!) and that human rights contribute to peace, within nations if not between them.

    I accept of course that the Peace Prize’s purposes have to be reinterpreted in the light of changed circumstances and should not be unnecessarily hide-bound by the literal terms of Nobel’s bequest — indeed, I said exactly this, in terms, in the post-script to my original comment. Obviously the references in Nobel’s will to “the holding and promotion of peace congresses” as examples of the kind of thing to be recognised by the Prize must be contrued as referring to contributions to peace-making generally, not only through peace congresses. But it’s not necessary or desirable to depart even further from the concept of a “contribution to peace-making” by allowing it to refer to the promotion of any desirable conditions which in turn have an indirect bearing on peace: human rights and peace are both desirable and it may well be that each of them creates conditions that are favourable to the other, but that’s a far cry from saying that they are the same thing.

    Similarly, there’s no need to depart very far from Nobel’s example of “the abolition or reduction of standing armies” in determining the purposes of the Prize in modern times: any contribution to disarmament, reductions in nuclear arsenals, treaties governing levels of armaments and weaponry, etc., obviously comes within the intended category. Equally obvioulsy, championship of human rights or defiance of repressive governments, while both laudable in themselves, do not.

    You argue that a literal interpretation of Nobel’s intentions “would exclude Prizes for action which does not directly result in Peace between nations”, implicitly or explicitly inferring from this that such a restriction would take no account of changes since Nobel’s time that make such a literal construction irrelevant or impossible, and that consequently it’s legitimate to broaden the interpretation to include peace within nations as well as between them. But Nobel’s will didn’t mention “peace” between nations: it referred to “the person who … shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations“, and I can’t find anything in that which has become obsolete or irrelevant or otherwise requiring re-definition for modern circumstances, especially a re-definition that entails vastly broadening its scope so as to encompass a contribution to conditions which, although not necessarily directly related to fraternity between nations, are conducive to peace (not necessarily fraternity) within (not necessarily between) nations.

    I can’t begin to match your expertise in legal matters, John, not being a lawyer myself, but I always thought that where partially obsolete provisions in a legal instrument need to be re-interpreted to conform with changed circumstances, the reinterpretation should depart as little as possible from the intentions of the original text and that it should continue to adopt everything in the original that remains relevant and applicable. The enormous broadening and reinterpretation of Nobel’s will adopted by the Nobel Committee, and defended in your comment, don’t seem to me consistent with that principle of minimum departure.

    Nor do I accept your complaint that confining the award of the Prize to “those who directly negotiate Peace … would tend to ‘lock in’ diplomatic achievement as the sole criterion”, which you object to on the grounds that “often, although not always, diplomatic achievement has been based upon the pursuit of national interest in which Peace is only the most expedient outcome”. This seems to me to imply an inherent contradiction: the pursuit of peace (or, more accurately, fraternity) between nations is an inherently diplomatic activity, since diplomacy is by definition concerned with relations between nations (and incidentally not by any means an activity confined to professional diplomats). Political leaders often make a greater contribution to fraternity between nations than career diplomats, and when they do, or even when career diplomats do, they have an obviously superior claim on Nobel’s Prize than a human rights activist, however brave and admirable.

    There are many ways for the international community to recognise and reward human rights activists and others who resist repression in authoritarian societies; just as there are many ways to raise the international price of repression by totalitarian governments. But I submit that to use the Nobel Peace Prize for either purpose is not only a flagrant departure from Nobel’s expressed intentions: it is also an entirely unnecessary departure, since there are plenty of people whose work for “fraternity between nations”, for disarmament and for peace, manifestly qualifies for the Nobel Prize without the necessity of departing at all from Nobel’s intentions as defined in his will. There will always be marginal cases — including, I would say, George Marshall and the International Red Cross. But I’m afraid that I can’t see (for example) Liu Xiaobo or Albert Luthuli as even marginally qualified candidates, admirable chaps though both are or were.


  4. Dear John (if I may)

    Brian has been encouraging some of us, as you know though like some of us you may wonder why, to join the very interesting between you on the recent award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaopo. Like many people I have often wondered about the non-scientific Prizes, having at least opinions about them and no knowledge at all about the others. I confess that i know little about the arrangements. They seem to have acquired a life of their own beyond the strict requirements of the donor and I should be surprised to see a challenge succeed in grounds of charity law. I once heard Seamus Heaney described as “poet of the year in Norway”. And as an Ulsterman I am aware that twice in my lifetime the Peace Prize has been shared by two people from the Province: once by two spirited ladies who founded an organisation to discourage strife and once to two political leaders who seemed to be bringing about reconciliation though it took others to finish the job even as far as it has been finished to date. In one case I was uncertain if the names of the winners and in the other their achievement would have been sufficiently well-known without some publicity and presssure from the dreaded (British and possibly American) diplomats. I have, shall we say, a slightly jaundiced view. I see the award to Liu Xiaopo as a statement of broadly Western views not so much on peace in any narrow sense as on our general political outlook as opposed to theirs. And I prefer our outlook to theirs, though possibly with a slight precautionary genuflection to the powers of survival of Marxism. However looking at our democratic history I am not sure that it is the same as peace. I fear that the Peace Prize is just another weapon in the global struggle or sometimes, if no other cause is promoted, in some minor quarrel. I don’t suppose the Prize for Literature is much different, the thinking man’s Oscars, good for whisky talk but not to be taken too seriously.

  5. Brian. My belated response.
    The trouble with your reply is that it is predicated upon a faulty principle of interpretation.

    In the case of a charitable gift, it is not a matter of applying language or ‘any re-interpretation (of it)in the light of changed circumstances’. That is not the approach.In the case of a gift for a chatitable purpose the words give you the general charitable intention. It is that which Courts and trustees must apply. Because it is the ‘general charitable intention’trustees in administering a fund are vested with a broad discretion,even more so when the gift is in perpetuity.

    It would be unproductive to debate the virtues or otherwise of this rule of construction in reference to charitable purpose gifts.It is the rule and the validity of the individual Prizes awarded by the Nobel Committee must be judged on that basis.

    In this instance, it is not difficult to ascertain the general charitable intention. The Prize is intended to advance World Peace. That is evident from the Will itself, but were there any doubt, extrinsic evidence would remove it.As mentioned, the Trustees (the Nobel Committee)have a broad discretion in administering the trust for this purpse in the administration of the Trust and in identifying the objects who are to be benefited.That flows primarily from the fact that they are to give effect to a charitable intention,which is ‘general’.The reference to ‘fraternity’,if it has any interpretative weight, only confirms the broad approach which the trustees would otherwise be allowed to take.

    The broad approach is intended to avoid the kind of difficulties you experienced with the award of the Prize to the Red Cross.You described the acceptability of this as ‘marginal’. It would follow that a ‘marginal’ — and thus arguably invalid award — of the Prize was made on the first occasion the Prize was awarded(1901)and then again in 1917, 1944 and 1963. This surprising result does,of course, only arise from a narrow construction of the Will as permitting the Prize to be awarded only in the case of a direct contribution to world peace.

    That the promotion of human rights may advance world peace was, as I pointed out in my initial comment,the strongly held opinion of post war statesmen who initiated and prepared the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and presumably of the nations who have adhered to those instruments.

    It is, I think, clear that this international position on the link between human rights and peace is correct.

    Persecuted minorities range from Jews to Uighurs.Irrespective of the extremity of the persecution,they are unlikely to remain passive and non-violent indefinitely.They rise up or call in aid sympathetic countries or flee, generating the potential for violence in other countries.Apparently internal discrimination, such as apartheid, not only gives rise to internal violence but acquires an international dimension — and did so long before Albert Luthuli was awarded the Nobel Prize.

    One instance of the link became evident in the post-war years when, until 1989, the Soviet Union installed or maintained subservient communist regimes in eastern Europe by suppressing free elections, freedom of speech and freedom of asembly.

    Beyond these is the more general connection between suppression and potential aggression where a state seeks to consolidate nationalism by suppressing any voice calling for peace.Dissent becomes dsloyalty.
    Finally, one might mention the case where the rights of the majority have been suppressed for generations and eventually this explodes into violence.

    It follows that advocacy of human rights may contribute to the advancement of world peace and insofar as it does so it falls within the discretion of the Nobel Committee to award the Prize to a human rights advocate, like Liu Xiaobo; in the same way as it was permissable to award the Prize to Henri Dunant or the Red Cross.

    Of course, in the administration of the Trust there will in any given year be a wide range of potential recipients and one might differ from the Trustees in the way their discretion has been exercised. You, I think,would approve the award to Henry Kissinger and are opposed that to Albert Luthuli — my view is the reverse.

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