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Nick Howen: An Appreciation

February 7, 2010

Former Board Members, Staff and Associates
Tibet Information Network (TIN)
February 4, 2010

Nick Howen helped found the Tibet Information
Network (TIN) in London in 1987 and served as the
first chair of its board until 1998.

His connection with Tibet began in the autumn of
1987, when he was a young commercial lawyer
travelling through Asia as a tourist. He was
among a hundred of so foreign tourists who
happened to be in Lhasa that September when the
first demonstrations of the modern era broke out,
and was probably the only foreigner there with
legal training. When police opened fire on
unarmed protestors, leading to at least 8 deaths,
another tourist, Robert Barnett, met Nick by
chance in the back streets of the city as they
took cover from the shooting, and asked if Nick
would help him treat Tibetans who had been
wounded but were too afraid to go to hospitals.
Nick immediately agreed. It was the beginning of
many years of work helping to document human rights conditions in Tibet.

Barnett and Nick treated the wounded as best they
could, but found that their medical supplies and
skills soon ran out. That afternoon they arranged
a meeting of other tourists back at their hotel
and asked them to collect medicines from every
foreigner in the city. The tourists formed teams
which went to each tourist hotel in the city
until they found three foreigners who were
doctors or medical students, who were then led by
Nick and Barnett to the places where wounded
demonstrators were hiding to provide medical treatment and support.

At the same time Nick and Barnett organized
informal meetings at each of the tourist hotels
in the city. At these the foreigners pooled their
knowledge of what had taken place. In the
meetings, which reconvened each night for several
weeks, they allowed only first-hand testimony to
be included, formally distanced themselves from
political activists, and asked foreigners to
declare if they were working clandestinely for
commercial news-gathering operations. Within two
days they were able to produce a fifty page
report detailing the events observed by the
foreign eyewitnesses of the protests. A team of
extraordinarily dedicated foreigners from several
countries arranged for the report to be
translated into various languages and for copies
to be carried to the outside world. Their
exhaustively-documented reports turned out to be
critically important because they contradicted
official statements to the international media
that police in Lhasa had never opened fire. A few
days later, while treating another patient, Nick
and Barnett heard the BBC broadcast back the news that they had sent out.

They remained in Lhasa long enough to collect
names and details of those detained before being
required to leave. Nick was pursued by police
after he was seen returning to a monastery to
collect details of arrestees, and was hidden by
monks in a monastery toilet until he could be
smuggled back to his hotel at night. There he
shaved his beard and hid for several days in the
hope that he would not be recognised. He and
Barnett left for the border shortly after. The
mountain passes were blocked by snow and Nick
used a pair of skis discarded by a mountaineer to
ski down from the passes to the border rather
than risk further delay. At that time checks and
communications were only rudimentary, allowing
him to cross the border and reach Nepal without
hindrance. In March 1988 Barnett presented their
initial report to the UN Commission for Human
Rights in Geneva, leading the Chinese government
immediately to concede to the Commission that in
fact its police had indeed opened fire on the
protestors in Lhasa the previous autumn.
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