Failed Promise: 25 years ago the Dalai Lama unveiled Canada’s “Tribute to Human Rights Monument”

BY CAROLE SAMDUP (Montreal) - Twenty-five years ago today, I was standing in a crowd of more than 3000 Canadians as His Holiness the Dalai Lama unveiled Canada’s Tribute to Human Rights Monument in Ottawa. It was a cold and rainy day but the atmosphere was warm and festive. It was a thrilling moment, filled with pride for Tibetans both here in Canada and around the world.

For Canadians present that day, the Monument signified Canada’s commitment to human rights. As the world's first structure dedicated to the struggle for fundamental rights and freedoms, the unveiling was a proud expression of our national values.

The unveiling took place on September 30, 1990 during the Dalai Lama’s first visit to Ottawa and less than one year after he had received the Nobel Peace Prize. The event was all the more significant because it came only a day after the agreement unifying East and West Germany was finalized. For those gathered at the unveiling, we believed another world was possible.

The crowd waved small Tibetan flags as John Peters Humphrey, the Canadian jurist who authored the first draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, introduced His Holiness. And then a small child, in a sudden burst of enthusiasm, ran up from the crowd onto the stage and stood with Hon. Gerry Weiner, Secretary of State for Multiculturalism, as His Holiness pulled the string that held the tarpaulin covering the monument.

HR Monument

The electricity in the crowd was perhaps best expressed by the ceremony’s host, Hon. Ed Broadbent. “As political leader of the noble Tibetan people, no one better represents the cause of human rights than the Dalai Lama,” he said. “Today, we all join with him in his struggle for the re-establishment of religious tolerance and human rights for the people of Tibet”.

In response, His Holiness emphasized the importance of non-violence and compassion within the Tibetan struggle. “Because violence can only breed more violence and suffering, our struggle must remain non-violent and free of hatred. We are trying to end the suffering of our people, not to inflict suffering upon others.”

Building on his message, a few days later on October 2, 1990, His Holiness presented his Five-Point Peace Plan to a joint sitting of the Parliamentary Committees on Foreign Affairs and on Human Rights, where he appealed for Canada’s support to advance the Sino-Tibet dialogue for a peaceful resolution of the Tibetan cause. Sadly, a quarter century later, there is no dialogue and China’s increasingly hard line, bolstered by its economic might, has silenced many of its once steadfast supporters.

Today the Monument’s brass plaque still bears the Dalai Lama’s name, but it is tarnished and largely forgotten. The signs of neglect are symbolic of the international community’s failure to confront the human rights challenge in Tibet. Since 2009, more than 140 Tibetans have self-immolated in protest of China’s harsh treatment of the Tibetan people. Discriminatory economic policies, arrests, deaths in custody, denial of free expression, interference in the practice of religious and cultural traditions are everyday realities in Tibet today. It is a sad reflection on our collective failure to meet the lofty promise of human rights for all - the message that was so inspirational when Canada’s Tribute to Human Rights Monument was unveiled twenty-five years ago.

History will tell the tale. History will be the judge.

Canada’s Tribute to Human Rights Monument is a granite and marble structure on which is engraved the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Originally conceived as a tribute to Poland’s Solidarity Movement, the Monument evolved into a broader commitment by Canadians to live in a society based on justice, human dignity, and universal rights.

Designed by renowned Montreal artist and architect Melvin Charney, the Monument was conceived in relationship to the National War Memorial which it faces. It mirrors the War Memorial but transforms the reflection according to the biblical passage “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares”. Visitors to the Monument walk a symbolic pathway towards peace and co-existence.

Nobel Peace Laureates championed the Monument and its message. The first steps on the path were taken by Lech Walesa in November 1989 during his visit to Canada. His Holiness the Dalai Lama unveiled the Monument in 1990. In 1998 Nelson Mandela visited the Monument and walked its pathway saying that it "inspires all who see it to join hands in a partnership for world peace, prosperity and equity."

Over the years, Tibetan-Canadians and their supporters have held numerous vigils and rallies at the Monument.

Carole Samdup is the Executive Director of the Canada Tibet Committee.

The Dalai Lama’s Five Point Peace Plan is found at:


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