Archive for December, 2014

International Human Rights Day: Tibet, western democracies and the challenge of principled pragmatism


In 1950, the same year that His Holiness the Dalai Lama assumed political power at the age of fifteen, the United Nations proclaimed International Human Rights Day as an annual reminder that basic rights and freedoms are the common concern of all Governments and all peoples.  Less than two weeks later, on December 22, 1950, the Dalai Lama was forced to temporarily flee Tibet’s capital city Lhasa following threats against his safety made by invading Chinese forces.

Today, almost 64 years later, International Human Rights Day marks the 25th anniversary of the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Dalai Lama.  In conferring this honour to His Holiness in 1989, the Nobel Committee said, “… the Dalai Lama has come forward with constructive and forward looking proposals for the solution of international conflicts, human rights issues, and global environmental problems”.

Sadly, despite consistent adherence to such constructive proposals, there has been little progress over the past quarter-century towards resolving the conflict in Tibet. The Tibetan people continue to struggle under the yoke of Chinese oppression and, as he nears the age of 80, the Dalai Lama still lives in exile while his dreams of returning home remain elusive.

Here in Canada, as in other Western democracies, the idea of “principled pragmatism” has taken hold, particularly when it comes to discussions about the promotion of human rights in China or Tibet.  While the national polity is often described in terms of shared common values including democracy, rule of law, and human rights, these are the very principles that are abandoned in the interests of so-called pragmatic policy decisions.  It’s a dangerous road to follow.

The past year has been a difficult one for the Tibetan people.  The human rights violations they experience are rooted in a political system that seeks to eliminate all aspects of Tibetan identity.  Here are few examples:

  • The human right to be free from arbitrary detention.  On March 16, 2014, a 20 year old monk, Choeying Kalden, was detained by police after sending emails criticizing Chinese rule to the mobile phones of Chinese cadres stationed at Tsenden Monastery in Sog County, Nagchu Prefecture, TAR.
  • Labour Rights.  Free trade unions are not permitted in Tibet. On April 30, 2014, more than 100 teachers from Rebgong staged a protest in Malho demanding an end to poor working conditions resulting from their 10-year status as substitute teachers. As substitutes, the Tibetan teachers receive only minimum wage and no benefits, while full time positions with benefits accrue mostly to Chinese teachers.
  • Women's Rights. In October 2014, an "alternate report" submitted by a coalition of NGOs to the UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), documented a series of human rights violations experienced by women in Tibet, including the trafficking of poor and illiterate Tibetan women to Chinese provinces where they are commonly exploited and often led into sex work.
  • The Human Right to Food.  According to international observers including which monitors the fate of Tibetan nomads, China’s land tenure and resettlement policies are “reducing Tibetan food security and generating reliance on distant sources for even basic foodstuffs, despite a long history of Tibetan self-reliance."
  •  The Right to an Effective Remedy. In February 2014, Reuter's news agency reported that China's Foreign Ministry had called on Spain to prevent the launch of lawsuits that seek to probe alleged Chinese human rights abuses in Tibet. The Spanish Parliament subsequently voted in favor of a bill limiting the power of the judiciary to investigate human rights abuses committed outside the country.
  • The Right to Health.  On September 29, 2014 more than 1000 Tibetans protested the dumping of toxic waste into local rivers which they claimed had killed fish, affected crops and led to health problems. The Tibetans had repeatedly appealed to local authorities over a 5-year period but their appeals were rejected and generated angry reprisals from local officials.
  •  The Right to be Free from Torture. In early December 2014, it was reported that a Tibetan political prisoner, Tenzin Choedak, died just two days after he was released to his family by prison authorities. He had sustained beating injuries while in prison and had been taken frequently to hospital accompanied by prison guards. Sources report that “His physical condition had deteriorated and he had brain injury in addition to vomiting blood.”
  •  The Right to Freedom of Religion. Early in 2014, Chinese authorities expelled more than 100 Tibetan nuns from Changlo nunnery near Shigatse. They were also forced to remove their nun's robes. Of the 200 nun's at Changlo, only 21 were permitted to remain in the nunnery. According to reports from Tibet, monks and nuns who fail to return will have their names removed from county family registration lists, their [state-issued] identification cards will be made invalid, and any government assistance--of whatever kind or amount--provided to their families will be withdrawn.
  •  The Right to Freedom of Expression.  In October 2014, the global network to defend and promote freedom of expression (IFEX), reported that Chinese authorities had stepped up persecution of independent Tibetan news providers.  They cited the cases of three writers who frequently provided information for external observers saying that their activities were "aimed at destroying social stability and dividing the Chinese homeland” adding that China was turning Tibet into an "information blackhole".
  •  The Right to Self-Determination. For decades, the Tibetan people have been demanding the right to determine their own political, cultural, and economic development. However, under Chinese rule, they remain subject to China's harsh policies. Under the leadership of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, nine rounds of talks were held with China during 2002-2010 in order to lay the groundwork for a solution to the conflict in Tibet based on the "Middle Way Approach". The talks have been stalled since 2010. As China's continues to refuse constructive dialogue based on mutual respect, the Tibetan people are denied any ability to determine their own future.

It was interesting earlier this month when Ottawa welcomed two Tibetan leaders on Parliament Hill within a two-week period of time.  The occasion offered a unique opportunity to observe how the Tibetan conflict is reflected here in Canada’s halls of power. Sikyong Dr. Lobsang Sangay is the democratically-elected political leader of the Central Tibetan Administration in India, while Lobsang Gyaltsen is Chinese Communist Party representative and Chair of the Tibet Autonomous Region.  Dr. Sangay promoted the Dalai Lama’s “Middle Way Approach” and non-violent principles while Chairman Gyaltsen told his audience that His Holiness the Dalai Lama is "responsible for the problems" and that western media “distort” news coming from Tibet.  Ottawa’s vibrant Tibetan community autonomously organized a dinner and reception in Sikyong’s honour, while Chairman Gyaltsen did not announce his presence in Ottawa and avoided all contact with local Tibetans.  Dr. Sangay spoke with Canadians at a public event in Montreal and gave several media interviews to explain his administration’s policy positions, while Chairman Gyaltsen travelled to three Canadian cities under a cloak of secrecy.

And yet, the reception of these two visitors on Parliament Hill was basically identical and it remains unclear whether or not the Government of Canada actually endorses and promotes a renewed Sino-Tibet dialogue.  Efforts to increase economic ties with China, including by ratification of the controversial foreign-investment protection agreement, have clearly changed the game in terms of a transparent and principled position on Tibet.

It is easy to stand up for human rights when there is no cost to be paid. Today as we celebrate International Human Rights Day, the challenge for Canada and its allies in the coalition of democracies is this – are we ready to defend our values when there is no financial gain to be made, or when future economic benefits might be placed at risk?  Or do pragmatic concerns really trump human rights?