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Tibet: will political power defy international law?

April 9, 2008

Jurist Hotline
Saturday, April 05, 2008

Eva Herzer [co-founder, International Tibet Support Network and the
Tibet Justice Center]: "The United Nations Charter, Covenants and
Declarations set forth the internationally agreed upon standards of
human ethics and decency necessary to protect the integrity and dignity
of individuals and peoples. The current massive uprising of the Tibetan
people is a textbook example of what happens when the politically
powerful defy these standards. China can not longer contain the long
standing suffering and resentment in Tibet. Tibetans, from Lhasa to the
most remote villages and monasteries, are risking imprisonment, torture
and their lives to assert their right to self-determination, which China
forcefully took from them over half a century ago. Tibetans are taking
to the streets, carrying the picture of their leader, the Dalai Lama,
calling for freedom and raising their national flag, all acts strictly
prohibited in Chinese occupied Tibet.

China's propaganda efforts of portraying Tibetans as violent people who
will send suicide terrorist squads to the Olympic Games and of accusing
their Noble laureate leader, the Dalai Lama, of being "a jackal wrapped
in a habit, a monster with human face and animal heart" is a desperate
attempt to divert international attention from the inevitable necessity
to respect the Tibetans' right to self-determination. This right is
anchored in Chapter 1, Article 1 of the UN Charter. In 1970, the UN
General Assembly declared the right to self-determination to entitle a
people, such as the Tibetans, to freely determine their own political
status and to pursue their economic, social and cultural development.
This right is independent of and separate from the right to territorial
integrity, i.e. historical sovereignty. In other words, regardless of
whether Tibetans were a sovereign nation in the past, a matter of
disagreement between Tibet and China, Tibetans do have the right to
self-determination under the UN Charter. Further, the UN Vienna
Declaration of 1993 states that when there is a conflict between a
state's claim to territorial integrity and a people's right to
self-determination, the people's right to all expressions of
self-determination (including independence) prevails if the state has
not protected the rights of the people or promoted their welfare and
human rights. This is clearly the case in Tibet.

However, under the non-violent leadership of the Dalai Lama, Tibetans
are demanding much less than they are entitled to. They are willing to
compromise on an autonomous arrangement for Tibet by which they would
govern their internal affairs and China would have power over defense
and most matters of foreign affairs (however not just for the so called
"Tibet Autonomous Region" but for all of their historical Tibetan
territory). This presents a unique opportunity for China to develop
national harmony, end the suffering of the Tibetans and, in the process,
gain the long sought after moral legitimacy necessary for the claim to
world power status, which has eluded China so far.

The international community also has an important role to play in
assuring respect for international law. With the Olympics approaching
fast, international political leaders and corporate sponsors should take
a decisive stance to condition their participation in Olympic events on
China's immediate stop of the military lock up of Tibet and a prompt
start of negotiations with the Dalai Lama and his exile government.
International leaders should remember from the 1936 Berlin Olympics how
standing in the Olympic limelight, shoulder to shoulder, with a
totalitarian Olympic host strengthens and legitimizes totalitarian
regimes and their defiance of international norms.

So long as political power and economic interests are prioritized over
compliance with international law and non-violent solutions, the message
to those who are oppressed, colonized and discriminated against will be
that peaceful solutions are impossible. What options does that leave
open? Violence? And who suffers when violence prevails?"

Opinions expressed in JURIST's Hotline are the sole responsibility of
their authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's
editors, staff, or the University of Pittsburgh.
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