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"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."

Canada Disputed Chinese Claims to Tibet from Start

February 18, 2009

by Jeff Davis
Embassy Magazine, Ottawa, Canada

Published Feb. 18, 2009

Stephen Harper and former Progressive Conservative prime minister John
Diefenbaker are often compared for their stolid comportment and biting
partisanship, but it appears they also share a fondness for the Dalai
Lama and tough, pro-Tibetan stances despite Chinese glowering.

Three weeks ago, the Canada-Tibet Committee released a series of
declassified documents (available at from the Department
of External Affairs, the predecessor to Canada's modern foreign
ministry. The 68 pages of secret documents, kept for years by Library
and Archives Canada, include high-level communiqués on the subject of
Tibet and date mostly from the 1950s and early 1960s.

As the declassified documents reveal, External Affairs was of the
opinion that China did not have legitimate claims to Tibet, and held
that Tibet should be recognized as an independent nation.

In 1950, China's People's Liberation Army marched on Tibet, claiming to
liberate Tibetan serfs from oppression. In response, the legal division
of External Affairs evaluated the international status of Tibet and
then-secretary of state for external affairs Lester B. Pearson
circulated the legal opinion to Canada's missions in Washington, D.C.,
and at the UN in New York.

"The question is, should Canada consider Tibet to be an independent
state, a vassal of China, or an integral portion of China?" the memo
states. "It is submitted that the Chinese claim to sovereignty over
Tibet is not well founded."

The legal opinion considers claims of Chinese suzerainty over Tibet, but
finds these assertions of historic Tibetan vassalage to "have been a
mere fiction."

"In fact, it appears that during the past 40 years Tibet has controlled
its own internal and external affairs," the opinion reads. "Viewing the
situation thus, I am of the opinion that Tibet is, from the point of
view of international law, qualified for recognition as an independent

By 1959, Tibet was in the throes of an anti-Chinese, anti-Communist
revolt, and Tibet's spiritual leader, the 14th Dalai Lama, fled the
country after Chinese artillery shells landed near his palace.

Included in the declassified documents is a letter from Mr. Diefenbaker
to the Dalai Lama, in which the prime minister pledges Canadian support
to Tibet at the United Nations.

"I have received your letter...which requested the support of the
Canadian government for the resolution of the question of Tibet which
will be proposed at the...General Assembly," Mr. Diefenbaker writes in a
letter dated Sept. 29, 1960. "Allow me to assure Your Holiness that the
Canadian delegation will be receptive to all initiatives seeking to
ensure respect of the human rights of the people of Tibet."

In the meantime, the situation in Tibet took another turn for the worse.

In March 1961, the Dalai Lama again wrote to Mr. Diefenbaker about the
"extremely precarious" situation in Tibet.

"Accounts which I have received clearly show that there must be
immediate cessation to death and destruction which prevail in Tibet, as
otherwise there will be nothing left of Tibet," he writes, again
appealing to the prime minister to support Tibet at the UN and "bring
about a peaceful end to the grim tragedy of today.

"On several occasions Canada and her government have played a leading
role in upholding the rights of the smaller nations of the world," the
Dalai Lama writes. "I am, therefore, encouraged to hope that my personal
appeal to your Excellency will not fail."

On Dec. 20, 1961, the Sixteenth General Assembly of the UN passed a
resolution expressing "grave concern" over the violence in Tibet, the
"large scale exodus of Tibetan refugees," and lamenting the "suppression
of the distinctive cultural and religious life [Tibetans] have
traditionally enjoyed."

The UNGA resolution called for "the cessation of practices which deprive
the Tibetan people of their fundamental human rights and freedoms,
including their right to self-determination."

Changes Over the Decades

Decades later, the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper has taken
a position on Tibet reminiscent of Diefenbaker's.

"Canada has serious concerns about the human rights situation in China,
including in Tibet, and raises these concerns with the Chinese
government at every appropriate opportunity," said a DFAIT spokesperson
in an email. "Our government regularly calls on the Government of China
to respect the right of Tibetans to protest peacefully and to take steps
to improve the human rights situation in Tibet."

Mr. Harper provoked fiery retorts from Chinese officials after
officially receiving the Dalai Lama in his Parliament Hill office in
October 2007. This was a considerably warmer reception than was given by
former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin, who met him off the
parliamentary precinct.

Mr. Harper has, however, stopped short of calling publicly on China to
grant Tibet independence, instead calling on Chinese authorities to
negotiate in good faith with the Dalai Lama and his representatives to
bring peace to the region. The Dalai Lama himself has tamped down calls
for independence as well, saying Tibetans simply want cultural and
religious autonomy.

Despite this, Conservative Senator Consiglio Di Nino, chair of the
Parliamentary Friends of Tibet, said that External Affairs' 1950 legal
opinion was the correct one, and applauded Mr. Harper for returning to a
principled stand on Tibet's right to self-determination.

He said Canada drifted away from this strong position over the years, as
Liberal governments soft-pedalled the issue of Tibetan rights so as to
not complicate relations with China while trying to benefit from its
economic growth.

Carleton University Asian history professor Jacob Kovalio agreed, saying
that Liberal governments have tended to back away from controversial,
principled stands on Tibet.

"The Conservatives have been different, and I think better, in the sense
that they are...saying Tibetan rights should be recognized and China
should be intervened with in order to do the right thing," he said.

Charles Burton, a China specialist at Brock University, saw strong
parallels between the stands of prime ministers Harper and Diefenbaker.

"I think that we've gone back to the policies of Diefenbaker and before,
in terms of recognizing the Tibetan people as an entity and having a
particular concern for their human rights," he said.

Dermod Travis the executive director of the Canada Tibet Committee, said
Canada's legal opinion on Tibet from the 1950s remains relevant today,
and imposes a "moral duty" on Canada to remain supportive of Tibet in
its struggle for autonomy within China.

"Given the strong position we took in 1950 in these documents, it's
incumbent on us to use whatever influence we may have [to engage]
directly with the government of China and, with allies, to bring about
that negotiated settlement," he said.
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