Monday, November 09, 2009

Leaders gather at the Berlin Wall

World leaders, both past and present, are gathering in Germany Monday to mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Chancellor Angela Merkel is hosting British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, French and Russian presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and Dmitry Medvedev and representatives from across the European Union as well as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the Brandenburg Gate, the symbol of German unity. Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, ex-Polish president Lech Walesa and dissidents who helped bring down the Wall and end European communism will also attend today's event.

During a ceremony on Sunday US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, "Our history did not end the night the Wall came down. To expand freedom to more people, we cannot accept that freedom does not belong to all people. We cannot allow oppression defined and justified by religion or tribe to replace that of (communist) ideology."

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown will later pay tribute to "the unbreakable spirit of men and women who dared to dream." French President Nicholas Sarkosy has already aired his views on his Facebook page. Sarkozy shared his own memories of November 9 saying he had been in Berlin and was among the first to chip away at the Wall's concrete slabs. "We then headed for Checkpoint Charlie (border crossing) to see the eastern side of the city and finally confront this Wall and I was able to take a pickaxe to it," he wrote. 

Meanwhile Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who was posted as a KGB agent in Dresden under communism, said he had fond memories of East Germany including learning German, mountain excursions and contacts with local agents. "But we see how the Federal Republic (united Germany) is developing and we are happy that we have good relations on a new basis," he said. "This of course makes any nostalgia secondary." as well as world leaders more than 100,000 ordinary citizens are expected to attend.

The celebrations mark the events of twenty years ago. Following weeks of pro-democracy protests East Germany's Stalinist authorities suddenly opened the border on the night of November 9, 1989. After 28 years as prisoners in their own country, euphoric East Germans streamed to checkpoints and rushed past bewildered guards, many falling tearfully into the arms of West Germans welcoming them on the other side. The fall of the wall was preceded two years earlier by an historic address by the late President Ronald Reagan. On June 12, 1987, President Reagan stood before the Brandenburg Gate and said, "We welcome change and openness; for we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace. There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." 

Although there is some disagreement over how much influence, if any, Reagan's words had on the destruction of the Berlin wall, the speech is remembered as an important moment in Cold War history. Later this month President Barack Obama is expected to arrive in Beijing on his first visit to the country. He is not expected to follow in the footsteps of Reagan and call for greater freedoms in China and a tearing down of the so-called Great Firewall of China. Recently Chinese Internet users and expats, angry at the continued censorship in China posted comments on the BerlinTwitterwall which was set up to mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the wall. It wasn't long before this site too became blocked. 

Many Twitter users made reference to Reagan's famous speech and called on Obama to say the words, "Mr Hu tear down this wall." In an article entitled "Does Obama Believe In Human Rights?", the Wall Street Journal questioned the president's standing on such matters. Der Spiegel had already reported that Obama had cancelled his visit to the wall to attend celebrations, and yet during his campaign he paid lip-service to the events of twenty years ago when he spoke in Berlin. "This city, of all cities, knows the dream of freedom," he had said.

But ever since claiming victory, statements pertaining to human rights have been scarce. In February, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton landed in Beijing with a conciliating message about the country's human-rights record. "Our pressing on those [human-rights] issues can't interfere on the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crisis," she said.

But there has been no pressing whatsoever on human rights. President Obama refused to meet with the Dalai Lama in September. One assumes he did not wish to ruffle feathers with the people who will now be financing his debts. In June, Liu Xiaobo, a leading signatory of the pro-democracy Charter 08 movement, was charged with "inciting subversion of state power." But as a US Embassy spokesman in Beijing told the Wall Street Journal, "neither the White House nor Secretary Clinton have made any public comments on Liu Xiaobo."

But it's not just China where statements of human rights have all but disappeared. In 2008, candidate Obama issued a statement insisting that "there must be real pressure placed on the Sudanese government. We know from past experience that it will take a great deal to get them to do the right thing. . . . The U.N. Security Council should impose tough sanctions on the Khartoum government immediately." But in mid October the State Department rolled out its new policy toward Sudan, based on "a menu of incentives and disincentives" for the genocidal Sudanese government of Omar Bashir. 

Obama staid conspicuously quiet following Iran's fraudulent elections and earlier this year the State Department denied a grant request for New Haven, Conn.-based Iran Human Rights Documentation Center. The Center maintains perhaps the most extensive record anywhere of Iran's 30-year history of brutality. The grant denial was part of a pattern: The administration also abruptly ended funding for Freedom House's Gozaar project, an online Farsi- and English-language forum for discussing political issues.

In July, Obama renewed sanctions on Burma. In August, he called the conviction of opposition leader, and fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi a violation of "the universal principle of human rights." But his administration's new policy with the Burmese junta is one of "engagement," on the theory that sanctions haven't worked. This is a government that as recently as May 2008 prevented the delivery of humanitarian aid to the victims of Cyclone Nargis. Some 150,000 people died in plain view of "world opinion," in what amounted to a policy of forced starvation.

Obama's record so far appears to be one of treating human rights as something that "interferes" with America's purposes in the world. Any expectation that he might speak out against the Chinese government's human rights record or Internet censorship is probably wishful thinking. There may be one small deciding factor and that is if such Internet restrictions affect trade as a recent report in the Australian allured to. According to the paper an upcoming report by the European Centre for International Political Economy censorship may contravenes World Trade Organisation rules, of which China is now a signatory. "Censorship is the most important non-tariff barrier to the provision of online services, and a case might clarify the circumstances in which different forms of censorship are WTO-consistent," said the study by Brian Hindley and Hosuk Lee-Makiyama.

Internet censorship can have a serious impact on businesses, the report said, noting how China's local search engine Baidu, which follows official rules on censorship, has overtaken global leader Google in the Chinese market. There have even been reports that the authorities have rerouted requests for and other international search engines to Baidu's site. WTO rules allow members to restrict trade to protect public morals or public order, but those measures must be necessary and disrupt trade as little as possible, the report adds. 

Since March this year the number of particularly western websites have been blocked or had services interrupted has grown considerably. At the time of writing these were just some of the sites inaccessible in China: YouTube, Blogger, Facebook, Typepad, Twitter, Wordpress, Flickr [partially affected], Friendfeed, Tumblr, technorati, imageshack, Picasa web albums, Scribd, Dailymotion, Liveleak, Vimeo,, [blocked for a short time], Twitpic, Pirate Bay, Python programming software download link, search, China Digital Times, WorldWeeklyNews, Danwei,, Amnesty, RSF, Wikileaks, Google Sites, Google Wave invite request page, Google Health [on some ISPs], Google Docs [https, http available]. In addition several popular Chinese social networking sites remain blocked including Digu, Zuosa, Fanfou and Jiwai.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

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