We happen to live in a time when nation-states are extremely powerful, and (all of them) usurping more rights all the time, and they are so powerful that they can routinely commit the most heinous forms of barbarism, murder, and other moral failures, and get away with it all. I, for one, hope this period of history ends soon, but it will no doubt be a few more centuries.
The authorities assert that no one has the right to interfere in China’s internal affairs. But they are wrong: international human rights law and standards are above the nation-state, and the world community has a duty to ensure they are respected.
...The idea of sovereignty changed again during the last century, as the world moved from nationalism to internationalism. The United Nations, founded in the wake of two disastrous world wars, committed member states to resolve disputes by peaceful means and defined the fundamental rights of all people in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The nation-state, the declaration said, would no longer have ultimate, unlimited power.
Today, universal human rights provide a check on arbitrary majorities around the world, whether they are democracies or not. A majority in a parliament cannot decide to harm the rights of a minority, nor vote for laws that undermine human rights. And even though China is not a constitutional democracy, it is a member of the United Nations, and it has amended its Constitution to comply with the Declaration of Human Rights.
However, Mr. Liu’s imprisonment is clear proof that China’s criminal law is not in line with its Constitution. He was convicted of “spreading rumors or slander or any other means to subvert the state power or overthrow the socialist system.” But in a world community based on universal human rights, it is not a government’s task to stamp out opinions and rumors. Governments are obliged to ensure the right to free expression — even if the speaker advocates a different social system.