UPDATED: Norway’s Culture Minister Linda Hofstad Helleland wound up a six-day trip to China over the weekend without mentioning a word about human rights abuses when speaking with her Chinese counterparts. She disappointed, even “shocked,” human rights activists at home in Norway who wanted her to bring up all the jailed authors, journalists and others in China who’ve been denied their rights to freedom of expression.
William Nygaard and Hege Newth Nouri of Norsk PEN, for example, had called on Helleland to mention concrete cases of human rights abuses in China. They’ve grown in recent years, they claim, and the situation now is “even worse” than it was when the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo in 2010. That infuriated Chinese leaders and set off a diplomatic freeze between Norway and China that only now has thawed.
Nygaard, the former publishing executive who survived an assassination attempt believed tied to his release of a Norwegian version of The Satanic Verses, and Nouri had claimed it’s important for Chinese authorities to get the message from international partners that human rights must be respected.
Helleland ignored their calls, at least for now. Like the prime minister and fisheries minister who also have visited China in recent weeks, Helleland didn’t feel the time was right to take up such a thorny issue. It’s more important, the government ministers claim, to rebuild mutual confidence before launching into areas of conflict.
“I’m not just surprised, I’m shocked that our culture minister avoided discussing human rights with the government in China,” Nygaard, board leader of Norsk PEN, told newspaper Dagsavisen on Tuesday. “It was bad enough that our prime minister didn’t bring up human rights either during her business visit, but it’s scandalous that a culture minister doesn’t do it during a follow-up.”
Helleland told Dagsavisen she could “understand Norsk PEN impatience,” but claimed the government must tackled the human rights issue in a “wise” manner. “Through the prime minister’s visit to China recently, a good foundation has been established for further dialogue and cooperation in many areas,” Helleland also wrote in a message to newspaper Aftenposten, which covered some of her otherwise low-profile China trip. Not a single photo nor any press releases from it had been published on her ministry’s own official government website two days after it ended. Helleland wrote on her social media site, however, that “Norwegian-Chinese cultural cooperations shall be strengthened,” after a meeting with China’s culture minister Luo Shugang.
Helleland claimed that Norway and China had agreed to set up “an annual consultation mechanism … at a political level” within the foreign ministry, “to draft all issues of common interest including human rights.” Since the foreign ministry thus has responsibility for the “mechanism,” Helleland wrote, “it is not natural for me to comment on this.”
‘Should never be natural’
Nygaard was not impressed. “It should never be ‘natural’ to bring up violations of human rights, that’s the whole point,” he told Dagsavisen. “Violations of human rights are unnatural. The assignment is to make the unnatural possible to discuss.” He accused the government of having “economic motives” for refusing to confront Chinese officials with their human rights violations.
Nor was Nyaard the only one to be disappointed. So was Kristenn Einarson, director of the Norwegian publishers’ association (Den norske Forleggerforening), who noted that the culture minister “had chosen not to take up human rights during her recent visit. He told Dagsavisen that if the Norwegian government really “takes human rights seriously, and doesn’t just want to sell fish,” the culture minister should quickly have a serious meeting with the Norwegian organizations that work for freedom of expression and human rights.” He mentioned Norsk PEN, Amnesty International, his own group “and several others.”
Political commentator Harald Stanghelle was also sharply critical of Helleland and the government. “She is a government minister responsible for freedom of the press, freedom of expression and artists’ rights to work and publish without being persecuted,” Stanghelle wrote in Aftenposten on Tuesday. “Her post carries a deep moral responsibility, and an obligation to recognize artists, journalists, authors and publishers who are persecuted.” Instead, Stanghelle wrote, “the Norwegian government has been punished (by the six-year diplomatic freeze with China) into submission and silence.”
Helleland told Aftenposten that the foreign ministry is working on setting up an initial “consultation meeting” with the Chinese “where human rights can be a theme.” The meeting is planned for after the summer holidays, however, which is right when all off Norway’s political parties will be busy with the parliamentary election campaign. Any change of government would further, and perhaps conveniently, postpone any difficult talks about human rights.
The government has been criticized in Norway for failing to otherwise address the human rights issue, which is always supposed to be high on the Norwegian political agenda. The next Norwegian minister to visit China will be Oil Minister Terje Søviknes of the Progess Party. Søviknes, who’s as keen for more business deals between China and Norway as his fisheries minister colleague was, is also unlikely to bring up how political opponents of China’s regime often disappear, are tortured and jailed as a threat to the power of China’s Communist Party and its powerful boss Xi Jinping.