Illuminating human rights

BY SAMPHE LHALUNGPA (Ottawa):  Your Worship, Mayor Watson, esteemed speakers and invitees, what an honor to be here today at this special ceremony to illuminate this monument, the Canadian Tribute to Human Rights.


As a Canadian of Tibetan origin, it is a special honor to be here, speaking on behalf of the Canada-Tibet Committee and as someone from a micro community. As you all know, this monument was inaugurated by His Holiness the Dalai Lama during his 1990 visit to Ottawa… and I the had the pleasure of being here for that special event – though I must admit with slightly more hair and considerably less waist!!

Much has happened since then. His Holiness was made an Honorary Canadian, one of just five. The great champion of freedom and human rights, Madeba - Nelson Mandela - is another. His Holiness has also gone on to become a universally respected figure for his compassion and commitment to non-violence and for his very special bond with people.


In these short remarks, I would like to make two points:

  • The need for us here in Canada, along with others of goodwill and friends of China, to advocate for rolling back the series of measures now in place in Tibet that deny the people there, even those rights prescribed under the constitution of the PRC;
  • To make a point that facilitating access to rights is an important dimension of creating a culture of rights.

The first point: Today, in the face of unrelenting repression by a security state and the brutal crackdown on the very idea of what it is to be a Tibetan on the High Plateau, Tibetans have remained true to the principles of non-violence and in fact in more than 140 cases have chosen to sacrifice their own lives in protest through self -immolation. Not only people, Tibet’s fragile environment is also under pressure because of China’s policies. Here I would like to share a few lines of a poem by a Tibetan blogger on the impact of uncontrolled mining on the High Plateau:

On top of the Mountain, people with metal fangs

Tear off the skeleton of the mountain, Blue Sheep,

Start on the hillside, hawks hover in the sky

Unable to find a rock to perch on, feathers

Shed in the wind

On the silent grasslands, those

Tracks of wheels, like a scar on a young girls face

Oppress the vessel of the mountain…….While those

Irrelevant rocks, exposed

Shapeless blood, whiter than milk

Drop by Drop, flows along

With the wound of the hillside

While the mountains are scarred and people battered, the spirit is strong and does not give in to hate.

It is now time for the world community to recognize these acts of courage and morality. Dear friends, Canada is well placed to call for dialogue towards the establishment of real negotiations on the Tibet issue. Our standing is bolstered by actions such as the Truth and Reconciliation process and we now enjoy a unique opportunity to use that space as the basis for assuming international leadership on the Tibet issue.

Too often the discourse on human rights becomes a finger pointing exercise. What is needed is for countries to share best practices and in this way to ensure that human rights advocacy reflects our respect and empathy for the other. For example where countries do the right thing, we should recognize their achievements including for example, in the PRC which has in recent years managed to bring some 400 million out of poverty. This is a laudable achievement and needs to be recognized also within its human rights perspective.

As a retired UNICEF development professional, I can say that the Convention on the Rights of the Child changed the focus, strategies and direction of our work and engagement. Because it was seen in less threatening terms, it is one of the most widely ratified human rights conventions, closer examination will reveal that it contains, many clauses that refer to freedoms of association, religion etc.

My observations as a development professional with UNICEF over the last 24 years have convinced me that human rights must not only be declared but must also be resourced. People must be able to access their rights, especially people who are socially or economically excluded or marginalized.

For example, most countries now claim to be in compliance with the Right to Education. On paper, it is certainly the case, but on closer examination, one finds that significant numbers of children do not have meaningful access. Although they may be enrolled, they have not been able to complete their education or the education they completed was not at an acceptable standard. I mention education especially as today is the International Day of Action on Child Labor and in many cases it is the lack of meaningful access – in its broadest sense -- to quality education that drives families and children to work. So yes, primary school enrollment is a start and by no means an end goal. When very poor families have to make a choice between the purchase of exercise books for the child and school fees or food in the family pot, the choice is obvious - legislation notwithstanding. It is not Education For All.

Finally, I first arrived in Ottawa in 1976 from Vancouver, where my family had lived since 1971, and was then almost the only person of Tibetan origin here. Today, after being away for more than 23 years, I am glad to report that there are around 70 Tibetans in Ottawa and by 2016, we should number around 100. These latest additions to the group are thanks to the Government of Canada and its positive response to His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s request to take 1000 Tibetans from Arunachal Pradesh in the northeast of India.

In 1959, it was the generosity of the Government and people of India that more than 120,000 Tibetan refugees were welcomed to India. Today, His Holiness calls Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh his home – he also speaks about the importance of Mahatma Gandhi’s example in his thinking.

Monuments are useful but it is only when they become part of the life and consciousness of people around them that they resonate. That is why I was so very pleased to see pictures of Tai Chi being practiced around Canada’s monument to human rights.

Though Tibetans are a small community here, I assure you that we will punch above our weight in working with other Canadians to strengthen the culture of human right in this city and across the country.

Thank you, Merci

Samphe Lhalungpa is a 23 year veteran of the United Nations and the former President of CTC-Ottawa branch. His remarks were prepared for delivery at the June 12, 2015 lighting ceremony of the Canadian Tribute to Human Rights monument located in Canada’s capital, Ottawa.

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