12/16/2010 06:11 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

An Empty Seat for All of Us

As the on-going debate in DC continues about how much debt to sell off and rising concern about the role of China in our economic future, last week the China bill came due.

And, no one noticed.

For years the political and economic pundits have argued that one day in the future, China would use its enormous wealth, built on brutalizing the environment as well as its citizenry, to bear on political situations. From the mightiest empire on Earth to the most devastated emerging economies, China, Inc has slowly been investing their way to influence.

A week ago, the Nobel Peace Prize, the most respected and venerated international recognition of, as Alfred Nobel wrote in his will, establishing the annual honoraria

"... the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses"

was awarded to an empty chair.

Li Xiabao, a respected literary critic and political essayist, chosen for this award for "his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China" is in prison, serving an 11-year sentence for subversion. He is the second person awarded the prize while in jail. The last was held behind by the Nazi regime.

Li Xiabao's wife remains under house arrest. His supporters have themselves been jailed and called "Clowns" by the Chinese government.

The Nobel awards committee went so far as to commend the Chinese for using their economic power to lift millions out of poverty, but cautioned, "China's new status must entail increased responsibility."

Instead of showing that responsibility to human rights, China has chosen to use its economic power to strong arm 19 countries - including some of the closest allies to the US and largest recipients of aid and protection - to boycott the Nobel Peace Prize. Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Columbia, Egypt and even the Philippines have joined Russia, Cuba and the Sudan standing with China.

Where is the US in all of this? Good question. This administration has not been the leader in human rights advocacy at home or abroad.

Contrary to the promises made on the campaign trail, the Obama administration's record bears little difference to the previous administrations, and in some cases, is worse:

  • Continued use of state secrecy laws to foster impunity.
  • No redress or apology for Maher Arar, even after the Canadian's apologized and gave him compensation. The Department of Homeland Security continues to place him on a blacklist.
  • No accountability for anyone connected to the war on terror. Administration continues to say it wants to look forward and not back.
  • With the end of the Durham Tape investigation no one has been charged, and no charges were brought after the Office of Legal Counsel OIG Investigation at the Department of Justice.
  • The detention facility at Guantanamo Bay is still open and the Administration like the last continues to use the flawed military commissions system.
  • The Administration continues to hold people indefinitely without charge at Guantanamo.
  • There are many people who have been cleared for release for years, who present no security threat to the United States, who continue to be held at Guantanamo Bay. Out of a current population of around 174 only 84 will be charged or detained as a result of the Administration's Task Force review.
  • Obama Administration has used drones more in the first nine months than Bush in three years. Obama has authorized 90 - more than twice that authorized by Bush in two terms.
  • This week, in response to the targeting of US citizen Al Awlaki, a conservative Judge Bates ruled that the Administration does not possesses 'unreviewable authority to order the assassination of any American whom he labels an enemy of the state.'"
  • The Administration continues to officially sanction the use of stress positions, sleep deprivation and other techniques under Appendix M of the Army field manual.

As the events in Oslo show, the US has lost its moral high ground and China has successfully used it financial and political leverage to pressure democracies to tacitly endorse their repression of their own citizens.

That empty chair stands as a more powerful symbol than the Chinese could have imagined. Besides representing one brave man, its an apt metaphor for the place human rights have in the high power game of economics and politics.

We all agree, regardless of partisan politics, that we as citizens have a role to play. We elect our leaders to shape policy, but there is plenty for us to do to address the crisis in human rights - here and abroad.

When you start with the rights of the human, you end up in a different place altogether, than when profits are the only goal. But the human is missing from our domestic politics, too.

That empty chair might as well have been in the gallery of the Senate for the young people whose educations are sold out. The environment which is just another resource for exploitation. The LGBT community who are a wedge issue. The military has a blank check and we are in two wars without end that dont even register in our daily lives.

I voted for leadership. I voted for right over wrong. I voted for change. I voted for transformative leadership, but got transactional politics.

So as we move forward on this dangerous march toward dismantling of the safety nets, education system and the commoditization of every aspect of our lives from roads to prisons - there is a price to pay. I entrusted the President to watch for me and my empty chair.

The President quoted FDR in his press conference last week as an example of incrementalism. I find inspiration in the words of FDR, who reportedly told his allies, "I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it."