Human Rights in Tibet Overview (May 2011)1
An overview of the current state of human rights in Tibet.

c

An overview

Tibet is a place with a unique culture, history and identity, which has been changed dramatically since 1950 by the Chinese invasion and occupation. Not only have many Tibetans been killed; but Tibetans in Tibet do not enjoy basic human rights; and the Chinese government has introduced policies by which Tibetan culture, language and natural resources are being systematically and irrevocably eroded.2

Very few of the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights3(UDHR)and subsequent instruments such as the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights are realised in Tibet.  For example:

Tibet’s political and spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, lives in exile.  Meanwhile, the "Tibetan Autonomous Region" (TAR), which is created by China, is not Tibet, nor is it autonomous. Historical Tibet is divided between more than one province, and the TAR represents only the central area and some eastern regions of historical Tibet.  Today’s Tibet is effectively a police state, and the United Nations and international community have done very little to address the core issue of China’s illegal occupation of Tibet.4

What is the outlook for Tibet?

Tibetans and their supporters continue to struggle.

However, there is growing public awareness of the issues facing Tibetans. This is coupled with the fact that there is a growing push for democracy and a recognition of democratic values in countries whose previous leadership did not value universal human rights. One can hope that the Tibetan community may capitalize on this trend.  It appears that those Tibetans seeking to change the status quo are increasingly involved in promoting, publicising and advocating for their rights and raising support on an international level.

What is the Dalai Lama's favoured policy for Tibet?

The “Middle Way” policy is the Dalai Lama’s proposal to find a peaceful resolution between China and the Tibetan people.  The policy forges a middle ground between the Tibetan rejection of Chinese governance, and the pursuit of complete independence for Tibet.  The Dalai Lama believes that this policy is mutually beneficial: it addresses China’s security and stability concerns and it is more sustainable and beneficial to the Tibetan people and their culture than outright opposition toward Chinese rule.

The Middle Way policy seeks genuine autonomy for the three traditional provinces of Tibet.  Upon Chinese agreement, the Chinese government would be responsible for “the political aspects of Tibet’s international relations and defense, whereas the Tibetan people would manage all other affairs pertaining to Tibet.”5

Yet the impetus for this solution is coming almost exclusively from the Tibetan side, and not from China.  By contrast, Beijing is following a policy of rapid development in Tibet and neighbouring Eastern Turkestan (or Xinjing).  Tibetans are marginalised in their own country: economic investment extends only to the Chinese community, and the education system discriminates against Tibetans and their culture, e.g. by teaching students in Chinese instead of Tibetan. There is massive migration of Han Chinese to Tibet, now eased by the Beijing-Lhasa railway, and Tibetans are now outnumbered by Chinese in some areas.

China is also militarising Tibet.  As a result of the growing deprivation and repression of Tibetans, riots broke in recent years.

Therefore, it remains to be seen whether compromising on outright independence by means of a Middle Way solution will yield any real improvements for Tibetans, or result in their realisation of the rights to which they are entitled.

Is the Dalai Lama's policy of non-violence sustainable, particularly in light of the Tibetan unrest leading up to the Beijing Olympics?

The Dalai Lama condemns violence but one of his high-ranking monks, the Karmapa Lama, has been quoted as saying that he understands “the sheer frustration, the sheer suffocation” of Tibetans scattered in exile or forced to live under Chinese rule6.  He has further expressed sentiments to the extent that, “for any living being … when you feel the force of being cornered time and again, more and more, the time comes when you have nothing else left except to explode”7.

Despite the Dalai Lama’s unwavering insistence that there be no proliferation of violence, it is clear that the situation is volatile and that Tibetan exiles face significant pressures.  Most Tibetans believe firmly in the Dalai Lama’s policy of non-violence, but “there is a growing sense of anger and resentment among many Tibetans, young and old, and a feeling that there is a need to change the rules of engagement with China”8.

Thus, we see the seeds of the waves of violent protests in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics.  Round after round of talks with the Chinese have stalled and Tibetan anxiety has grown as the Dalai Lama has aged.  Some Tibetans within Tibet have therefore started to resort to the notion that violence is a tool worth using if it brings some attention to the Tibetan cause in the international community.

The current strategy

The Chinese occupation of Tibet has the strategic objective of wholesale eradication of Tibetan culture, and one of the ways that this is achieved is through the violation of Tibetans’ human rights.

Many Tibetan scholars suggest there is a difference of perspectives between the older and younger generations of Tibetans as to how to best address the Chinese occupation.  While it has been thought that the older generation generally prefers a peaceful progression towards the goal of autonomy from China, many argue that the younger generation has become increasingly frustrated with the Middle Way and would prefer pushing for a declaration of independence from China.  It is difficult to substantiate this generational divide, and in fact successive elections have yielded the same outcome: a rejection of the more militant route.

The combination of China’s regional geopolitical strategy coming into play and anti-Chinese violence in Tibet has led China to respond with an increasingly heavy hand in addressing Tibetan resistance.  In fact, China has subsequently increased security measures and has further militarized the region, deploying additional security forces to Tibet.  This has made the situation increasingly repressive, as has the enlarged role of the police and other security agencies. Furthermore, the restrictions imposed after the 2008 uprisings in Tibet have not yet been rolled back and various activists have been reported as being targeted for political persecution by the Chinese government.

What will happen when the Dalai Lama passes away or retires?

The implications of the death of the Dalai Lama are far wider in their reach than the mere creation of a vacuum in spiritual leadership.  The Dalai Lama believes that the Tibetan cause would suffer a great setback after his death and has stated his hope that the younger generation will continue the struggle for autonomy.  However, the importance of the Dalai Lama’s position must be understood in order to further grasp the issues facing Tibet.

For the past 500 years, the Dalai Lama has been the physical embodiment of Tibetan Buddhism.  Each time a Dalai Lama has passed away, his spirit is reincarnated in the body of a young Tibetan boy.  Now that many Tibetans live in exile and the political predicament of Tibet is nowhere near a resolution, there are fears that the movement will collapse under the weight of a fractious community, theological differences amongst Tibetan Buddhist sects, and political infighting in the exiled government.

The Dalai Lama has spoken of dividing his responsibilities among his successors but has also said that his reincarnation will be born in exile, as he himself will most likely die there.  Many analysts believe that he is grooming one of his high-ranking monks, the Karmapa Lama, to take on some of his duties.  Yet the issue of China still looms large over the issue of the Dalai Lama’s eventual succession; Beijing has insisted that any successor to the Dalai Lama be appointed under Chinese guidance and approval, which would clearly have huge political and religious consequences for the autonomy movement.  Recent allegations of corruption, after hoards of foreign currency totaling around £1 million were found at the Karmapa’s home monastery, further complicate the issue of his succession.

The challenges of preserving Tibetan identity as a diaspora or nation in exile

Forced integration of the Tibetan economy with the greater Chinese economy creates marginalization.  The recent construction of the Sky Train railway across the Tibetan permafrost plateau to Lhasa from mainland China has brought, and will continue to bring, an influx of Chinese migrants, further militarization of the area and further exploitation of the area’s natural resources.  The International Campaign for Tibet considers the Chinese development programme to be directly linked to the repression of the Tibetan people and states that it is “the most serious modern threat to the survival of Tibet’s unique religious, cultural and linguistic identity”9.

Religion is an integral part of the Tibetan culture.  As an atheist country, China does not support the Dalai Lama’s teachings.  Thousands of temples and other places of religious sanctuary were destroyed during the Chinese invasion of Tibet and subsequently during the Cultural Revolution, and the Chinese government now maintains strict control over Tibetan monasteries and nunneries.  The Chinese use the repression of the Tibetan Buddhist religion as a method of asserting control over the Tibetans.  However, dissension is rife amongst Tibetans and in order to keep their practices and culture alive, many Tibetans practise in secret shrines and use music and poetry as a way to promote their identity.

What can we do in the UK to help the situation in Tibet?

There are a variety of ways that we can help the situation in Tibet.  The organisation Free Tibet focuses on political campaigning and communicates regularly with its members with regard to opportunities for advocacy in the UK to promote the Tibetan cause.  Free Tibet also suggests making charitable donations, fundraising, and organising grassroots events to raise awareness.  There are other ways to become involved, such as joining the protest which takes place in front of the Chinese Embassy in London every Wednesday evening, or writing letters to the Chinese Ambassador and British Prime Minister to highlight the issues that Tibetans are facing.

One of the most important tools in our arsenal is our ability to raise awareness of China’s stifling of Tibetan autonomy, life and culture.  Awareness raising efforts are especially powerful in light of the groundswell democratic movements taking hold in North Africa and the Middle East at present.  A recent Internet campaign to promote a “Jasmine Revolution” by bloggers inspired by the turn of events in Egypt caused the Chinese government to tighten its iron grip on Internet access.  While the protests did not go beyond a gathering in Beijing at the end of February 2011, the fact is that the dissident movement in China is gaining traction.  This strengthening, coupled with a growing focus by the international community on repressive societies where there has been a push for democracy, may provide the movement with the momentum needed in order to pressure China to improve its human rights record.  To that end, we can promote the issue through our own awareness raising efforts, or lend our assistance to organizations such as Free Tibet, René Cassin and the TJYE who work to campaign and educate on human rights in Tibet.


1. Disclaimer:  This information sheet has been prepared for information purposes only.  It does not represent all viewpoints but is intended to provide a context and increase readers’ understanding on the various issues.

3. René Cassin co-drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and it has since set the framework for human rights law.

7. Ibid.