As Ban Ki-moon finalized his preparations for his visit this week to Beijing, one of his top advisors, Sha Zukang, traveled to China to present an award to a retired Chinese general who had authority over troops that fired on unarmed civilians during the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.
Sha, the U.N. Undersecretary General for Economic and Social Affairs, presented the World Harmony Award -- a glass plaque cut in the shape of a dove -- to former Chinese Defense Minister, Gen. Chi Haotian, in honor of his unspecified contributions to world peace, according to a report in Chinese state media. The World Harmony Foundation, a private charity headed by a Chinese businessman named Frank Liu, established the award.
It was unclear whether Sha appearance at the award ceremony was a gesture aimed at showing understanding for China's troubled human rights legacy. China has faced more intense scrutiny of its human rights record since Liu Xiobao, a jailed pro-democracy advocate who participated in the Tiananmen Square protests, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But Ban responded to the Nobel announcement by issuing a statement that implicitly questioned the wisdom of the Nobel committee's selection for the prize, and he has been reluctant to publicly raise concerns about the house detention of Liu's wife. In a meeting Monday with Chinese President Hu Jintao, Ban didn't even mention human rights.
Some officials said that Sha, a fervent Chinese nationalist, may have been engaging in a bit of pro-Chinese freelancing, or simply doing a personal favor for a wealthy businessman who has provided financial support to U.N. causes. Sha's office declined to comment, referring calls to the organizers of the award ceremony, The World Harmony Foundation, which did not respond to requests for comment. Officials in Ban's office said they were unaware of Sha's participation in the event. "This is the first we've heard of this," Martin Nesirky, the chief spokesman told Turtle Bay. "I don't have further comment for now."
U.N. officials said there is no specific rule prohibiting U.N. staff from presenting an award on behalf of a private charity. Staff rules, however, require employees "uphold and respect the principles set out in the Charter, including faith in fundamental human rights." They prohibit U.N. employees from accepting instructions from any government or from any other source external to the organization." The rules also require staff "avoid any action and, in particular, any kind of public pronouncement that may adversely reflect on their status, or on the integrity, independence and impartiality that are required by that status."
Still, the award ceremony amounted to another awkward incident for Sha, who has struggled to make the adjustment to life as an international civil servant. It also reflects poorly on Ban. Last month, Sha garnered international notoriety after criticizing the U.N. secretary general under the influence of alcohol at a U.N. retreat. The story was first reported by Turtle Bay.
Gen. Chi, a recipient of China's People's Hero award, served as the Chief of the General Staff of the People's Liberation Army during the Tiananmen crackdown, which led to the killing of as many as 3,000 civilians. Chi has publicly defended the military operation, but has denied giving the order to open fire on unarmed protesters.
"As PLA chief of staff he was present at a series of key meetings on the crackdown but he isn't recorded as saying anything," Andrew J. Nathan, a professor of Chinese politics at Columbia University. "He evidently was one of the key officers implementing the crackdown orders but I can't distinguish from these materials what specific role he played within that small group."
"I have no idea who the World Harmony Foundation is, but I suppose they represent the deft hand of the Propaganda Department in extending China's soft power," Nathan said. "I suppose this is a response to the Nobel Peace Prize."
The World Harmony Foundation was established in 2004 to "promote the ideals and principles of the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration," according to a statement on the group's web site. It is "dedicated to building Cultures of Peace and Sustainable Environments for all people."
Since 2005, the group has periodically organized ceremonies to ring the Harmony Bell for Peace, which was fashioned out of ammunition donated by the Chinese government and scrap metal collected by Chinese school children. It is trying to raise funding to build more bells.
Top U.N. officials, including former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and Deputy U.N. Secretary General Asha-Rose Migiro, have rung the Harmony Bell of Peace in ceremonies. In 2008, the group claimed that its founder Frank Liu was selected by an aide to Sha, Guido Bertucci, selected by a top aide to be a spokesperson for the U.N. Global Forum, a unit that promotes better public administration. There is no reference to Liu at the forum's website.
The organization has contributed money to previous U.N. causes, including a commitment to fund a 2009 U.N. concert organized by the U.N.'s public affairs and peacekeeping departments and a private group, the CultureProject. In a July 2009 letter to Liu, published by Inner City Press, the U.N. Undersecretary General for Peacekeeping Alain Le Roy, thanked Liu.
"Your support is of enormous importance to us," Le Roy wrote. "We are pleased to invite you to our Departmental Conference Room, where you will be given a complete situational briefing on the activities carried out by our peacekeeping missions around the globe. In addition, we would be pleased to offer you a tour of the Department's situation center where our staff monitors developments on the ground 24 hours a days, seven days a week."
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.