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Tibet has stronger self-rule case than Kosovo

May 13, 2008

Does Tibet have a right to self-determination under international law?
By Paul Harris
Financial Times
May 8, 2008 11:55

There are strong legal grounds to show that it does and that this right is being denied by China. As the recent protests in Tibet and the disruptions to the Olympic torch relay have demonstrated, Tibet is an international problem crying out for a solution.

The official position of the Chinese government is that Tibet is an inalien­able part of the People's Republic of China (just as France once claimed that Algeria was an inalienable part of metropolitan France). Those who question this are regularly attacked in the official Chinese media in vitriolic terms as "splittists," and anti-China. If they are themselves Chinese and live in China they are liable to be imprisoned.

Most countries recognise China's sovereignty over Tibet. The one notable exception is the UK, which recognises "suzerainty" of China with autonomy for Tibet, a subtle evasion which happens to be fairly close to the actual situation of Tibet in relation to China during the last years of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911).

China's present control dates from 1950 when it invaded. China claims that Tibet was already part of China when it did so. There are significant historical problems with this claim, but even if it were a strong one it would not justify an invasion. Most countries were at one time under alien rule. In 1911 Ireland was under British rule, as it had been for centuries, Finland was ruled by Russia, and Korea by Japan. The UN was intended to prevent aggressive wars based on spurious claims to historical rule or cultural identity, which had been the practice of Nazi Germany and imperial Japan.

The key issue is not sovereignty but self-determination. By the time the UN was created it was generally recognised that peoples had the right of self-determination. All states that have become members of the UN by ratifying the UN Charter - including China - have accepted the principle of respect for the self-determination of peoples.

In 1951 China and representatives of the Dalai Lama signed the "17-point agreement for the Peaceful Liberation". The phraseology of this document shows that someone was looking at it when drafting Hong Kong's Basic Law. It provides that "the Tibetan people have the right of exercising national regional autonomy under the unified leadership of the Central People's Government" (Article 3); that "the Central People's Government will not alter the existing political system in Tibet" (Article 4), and "will not alter the established status, functions and powers of the Dalai Lama" (Article 4).

These autonomy provisions were never observed. In response to the harshness of Chinese rule, the Tibetans rose in revolt in 1958. It was easily crushed by China, and in 1959 the 14th Dalai Lama and 80,000 other Tibetans fled into exile in India. The severity of repression in Tibet since then is well-documented. Tibetan Buddhism was in 1997 labelled a "foreign culture". Torture and ill-treatment in detention are widespread. Tibet's natural resources are ruthlessly exploited. Overall the situation bears similarities to Algeria under the French or Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan under Soviet Russian rule.

Tibet's status has been given renewed topicality by the recent independence of Kosovo which has so far been recognised by 40 countries, including all of the Group of Seven leading industrialised nations. If Kosovo has a right to self-determination, the right of Tibet is infinitely stronger. The catalogue of gross oppression, the second-class citizen status of Tibetans under Chinese rule and identity of Tibet as a country are all much clearer than in Kosovo's case.

Self-determination need not mean independence. The Dalai Lama has said that he favours autonomy for Tibet within China, provided that it is meaningful autonomy. Real autonomy, however, does not seem on offer. This is shown by the continuing aggressive denunciation and misrepresentation of the Dalai Lama by Chinese officials. Unless real autonomy is offered, self-determination in Tibet is bound to mean independence. China may hold down the Tibetans by force for a long time, but, as the example of Ukraine and Russia shows, even hundreds of years of repression is unlikely to extinguish the longing for self-determination among what are, incontrovertibly, a people.

The writer is a barrister and was founding chairman of Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor. This is a condensed version of an article commissioned and accepted by the magazine of the Hong Kong Law Society but then rejected as politically too sensitive.
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