On November 16, during a television interview with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the journalist David Pujadas commented on the satisfaction expressed by the President after the release of Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. He then asked Mr. Sarkozy whether he intended to publicly urge the Chinese government to release imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo.
In his reply, Nicolas Sarkozy began by implying that a personal appeal he recently made to Chinese President Hu Jintao on behalf of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate was decisive in persuading China to use its "influence with the Burmese authorities" and obtain her release. He then explained that it would be counterproductive to make any public statement concerning Liu Xiaobo. As explained by Mr. Sarkozy, such a strategy would only bring some self-satisfaction and amount to a public relations stunt. This strategy would in fact "block the system and harm the very interests of those we intend to defend, without achieving any real progress." The President added that he wanted to be judged on his actions and the "results" he obtains.
Mr. Sarkozy thereby justified his decision to publicly defend the Burmese Nobel Peace Prize laureate, but not the Chinese winner of the 2010 Prize, Liu Xiaobo. This double standard is unacceptable.
As President Sarkozy himself observed, Aung San Suu Kyi should have never been deprived of her freedom in the first place. Moreover, many observers concur that the junta's real objective in finally releasing her was to persuade the international community to accept the results of the November 7 sham elections. The Burmese generals--now wearing civilians' clothing--also seek an end to the economic and financial sanctions which directly harm their own interests.
The high level of targeted pressure on the top Burmese leaders was surely decisive in convincing the junta to seek an acceptable facade for its repressive system. Similarly, further pressure on this government is needed to persuade it to release the 2,200 remaining political prisoners and agree to begin a national dialogue which could lead to genuine democratic reforms in Burma, as Aung San Suu Kyi has repeatedly called for.
Liu Xiaobo is currently serving an 11-year prison sentence as a result partly of his involvement in the drafting of Charter 08, a document which seeks to bring about democratic change in China by holding the government to its own legal obligations. France's decision to pursue only "discreet" diplomacy in China with regard to human rights seems both inadequate and inefficient. Like every country, China is acutely aware of its image, but there is no risk that this image will be tarnished if criticisms of China's human rights record are expressed behind closed doors, far from any cameras.
In contrast with France, two of its allies, Germany and the United States, have clearly and publicly appealed for the release of Liu Xiaobo. Yet China has not reacted by breaking off its dialogue or commercial ties with these two countries. Furthermore, the French strategy may actually serve to strengthen the hand of the hardliners within the Chinese government. Many experts on China's political system have pointed out that Liu Xiaobo's sentence was not unanimously agreed upon within the Chinese Communist Party. The Party's reformist wing reportedly tried to argue against this harsh sentence. For example, Jean-Philippe Beja, a director at the French research institute CERI (Centre d'études et de recherche internationales), believes that Liu Xiaobo's release will depend on both "international pressure" and the outcome of the ongoing "power struggle within the regime." Nicolas Sarkozy's words, chosen more carefully, could surely help to strengthen the position of the more moderate voices.
Liu Xiaobo may find it hard to understand--once he is finally released--why the office of the French President failed to issue any official statement the day he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. France's discretion concerning Liu does not live up to the values that France claims to defend on the international scene. When a Nobel Peace Prize laureate is held behind bars, human rights defenders throughout the world expect France to speak out on his behalf.
China now has the dubious honor of being the only country in the world where a Nobel Peace Prize laureate is being kept in prison. Nicolas Sarkozy should add his voice to those of other leaders of major democracies who have spoken out loudly and clearly on Liu Xiaobo's behalf. There are some diplomatic risks which are worth taking, and which could make France proud once Liu Xiaobo is finally released.
Jean-Marie Fardeau is Director of the Paris office of Human Rights Watch.