Relentless Human Rights Violations by China on Tibetans Despite 109 Years of their Independence
Author: Mandakini Jathavethan
The Chinese population is composed of fifty-six ethnic groups. An overwhelming majority of the people (91.6 percent) belong to the Han ethnic group. Less than ten percent of the total population is distributed unevenly throughout the other 55 ethnic groups (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, 2013). A national survey conducted in 2010 by the National Bureau of Statistics of China recorded 3,002,166 Tibetans in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) (National Bureau of Statistics of China, 2011) and 6,282,187 Tibetans across China (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2021). Considering the total population in Mainland China to be 1,339,724,852 people (National Bureau of Statistics of China, 2011), according to the survey, Tibetans constitute a mere 0.46 percent of the total population and are considered an ethnic minority.
The treatment of minorities in China has invited much international attention for decades. Tibetans are no exception. There have been several credible reports of severe human rights violations through the decades. Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the 14th Dalai Lama, spoke of a “cultural genocide” perpetrated by Chinese authorities against the Tibetan peoples (Reuters, 2011).
The 13th Dalai Lama proclaimed Tibet’s freedom and sovereignty to commemorate a failed invasion of Tibet by the Manchu army in 1913. The Proclamation detailed previous attempts of the Chinese authorities in Szechuan and Yunnan to colonise Tibet. The Proclamation declared Tibet to be “a small, religious, and independent nation” (Tibet Justice Center, 1913). The Tibetan Independence Day is celebrated annually on February 13th to mark the occasion.
This year marked the 109th anniversary of Tibet’s Independence Day. Students for a Free Tibet-India (SFT-India) stated that “in occupied countries, the observation of Independence Day is a powerful expression of a people’s desire for freedom” (Students for a Free Tibet, n.d.). They organised a talk on “History of Proclamation of Tibetan Independence” in Dharamshala, India, where the 14th Dalai Lama resides. SFT-France (Students for a Free Tibet-France) held a peaceful protest at Bastille Square, Paris, by raising Tibetan flags and making demands to free Tibet from “Chinese occupation” (India Blooms News Service, 2022). A car rally terminating at the Chinese consulate of Canada was held, flying Tibetan flags and banners (ANI News, 2022).
Notably, no state legally recognised the sovereignty of Tibet, which is considered to be a part of China. As a state-party to several international human rights instruments, China is obliged to provide several rights and benefits to all its citizens, including Tibetans. This article highlights that despite the lack of sovereign recognition, China does not treat Tibetans with the same rights and benefits available to other Chinese citizens. Instead, they are harshly treated, and face intense governmental discrimination. Some of these issues are discussed in this article.
Human rights violations
Right to education
The Tibet Action Institute (2021) reported that roughly 75 percent of school-going children between the ages of six to 18 live in Chinese boarding schools, whose practices systematically eliminate the Tibetan language, religion, culture, and customs. This is supported by a Chinese Ministry of Education decree titled ‘Children Homophony Plan’ released in July 2021, requiring kindergartens in ethnic and rural areas to use Mandarin as the medium of instruction. Deservedly, this decree invited the attention of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. It recommended the preservation of the Tibetan language in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) by encouraging its use in education (Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, 2018).
As a state-party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), China is obligated to provide education to children in accordance with respect for the child’s “cultural identity, language and values”, according to Article 29(1)(c). The same provision obligates state-parties to provide such education to children in a manner of cultivating respect for cultures and customs different from their own. Article 7 specifically calls for states to adopt measures to eliminate racial prejudice through education, teaching, and culture. China has violated its obligations under the CRC to provide education tolerant of multicultural environments.
Right to life, torture and enforced disappearance
The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR) body that monitors the implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. It expressed concern over China’s vague and broad definitions of terrorism and separatism, as it facilitated the racial and criminal profiling of Tibetans. Reports from credible sources detailed China’s torture and ill-treatment of Tibetans, among other ethnic minorities. Over the years, the enforced disappearances of “lamas, monks, nuns, intellectuals, writers, artists, farmers, community leaders, and students” on the grounds of national security have been reported consistently (TCHRD, 2021).
As a State Party to the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, China is obligated to protect the right of all citizens to a life of liberty, free from torture and inhuman treatment or punishment, including through enforced disappearance. The Committee against Torture expressed concern over credible reports of “torture, deaths in custody, arbitrary detention and disappearances of Tibetans” (Committee Against Torture, 2016). China has also violated Article 2 and 7 of the United Nations Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances.
The right to work
China adopted the Farmer and Pastoralist Training and Labour Transfer Action Plan in 2019-2020 targeted at “rural surplus labourers” (Cu, 2021). They are trained and transferred within Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) or sent to mainland China. In their bid to eradicate poverty, Tibetan pastoralists and farmers are made to undergo “military-style vocational training” to correct their alleged backward thinking and to improve their Mandarin. By July 2020, the training of 543,000 Tibetan rural surplus labourers was completed, of which 49,000 were transferred within TAR and 3,109 were transferred to mainland China. They were to work in vocations considered to help them alleviate their poverty, such as in road construction, driving, cooking, and mining (Cu, 2021).
Evidence suggests that recruitment, training and job-matching are not voluntary. The land that is freed up is taken over by state-run collectives. Displaced Tibetans become increasingly dependent on government subsidies and suffer from cycles of debt and, ironically, poverty. This forcible eviction is not accompanied by any type of compensation either. Furthermore, the ethnic majority of China, viz., the Han, are encouraged at subsidised costs to transfer from mainland China to Tibet with the promise of employment opportunities. The migrants benefit more from subsidised economic development policies than native Tibetans. Han jobseekers fare significantly better than Tibetan jobseekers across China. A high rate of unemployment was recognised by the Committee against Racial Discrimination attributable partly due to Han “migration into minority areas” (Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 2014). The combination of the eviction of Tibetans and the influx of Hans in TAR results in skewed demographics aimed at the systematic dilution of Tibetan culture.
The right to employment and livelihood under safe and healthy conditions safeguarding freedoms is protected by Articles 2, 6(2) and 7 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, of which China is a state-party. Systematic and coercive urbanisation, coined urbanicide (Dorjee, 2017), forms a violation of the Tibetan peoples’ right to employment as it strips them of their livelihood.
Right to religious belief
Citing national security concerns, certain Measures that took effect on March 1st, 2022, allow only licensed entities to disseminate religious content online. One of the conditions to be granted such a licence is that the applicant should not have a criminal record. This condition is likely to disproportionately affect Tibetans whose defenders have faced increasing criminalisation by Chinese governance through the decades (Human Rights Watch, 2016). Article 17 of these Measures outright prohibits the broadcasting of “religious ceremonies such as worshipping Buddha, burning incense, receiving ordination, chanting, worship, mass, and baptism”. Alarmingly, this Article asks citizens to adhere “to the direction of sinicising religions”.
The additional licensing requirement is preceded by a December 2020 circular (Tibet Internet Police, 2020). It criminalised the use of the internet and VPNs to “publish and spread information that distorts history, dilutes national consciousness, uses religious content, religious activities, etc. to attack the party and state policies, and slander the socialist system” (Dolma, 2020).
China has even attempted to regulate Buddhism, asserting that the 15th Dalai Lama will be born in Tibet following Chinese laws and religious rituals. This invited the attention of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances; the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention; the Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights; the Special Rapporteur on minority issues; and the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. They sought China’s comments on “how the regulation of reincarnation of living Buddhas is compatible with the protection of freedom of religion or belief and the protection of religious minorities without discrimination under international human rights law” (Hazan, Steinerte, Bennoune, Varennes, Shaheed, 2020). They highlighted the 25th anniversary of the enforced disappearance of Gedhun Cheokyi Nyima, kidnapped at the age of six when recognised as the 11th reincarnation of the Panchen Lama by the Dalai Lama. The government had repeatedly refused to disclose his whereabouts and condition (Hazan et al., 2020).
Pictures of the Dalai Lama are routinely confiscated, and buddhist statues are routinely destroyed. There is no freedom to protest against such moves peacefully, as protestors are detained or imprisoned. Those found disseminating pictures or videos of such events or even seen in possession of such content on their mobile phones are punished. A multifaceted attack on Tibet’s religious and cultural beliefs through systematic extinguishment of Buddhism appears to be underway (Jathavethan, 2022).
Such actions violate the prohibition against discrimination, the right to equal protection without discrimination, the right not be deprived arbitrarily of liberty, the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and to freely participate in cultural life under Articles 2, 3, 6, 7, 9, 18 and 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The “right to take part in cultural life” is protected by Article 15(1) of the ICESCR. China has been a State Party since March 27th, 2001.
Right to free speech and expression
Tibetans are prohibited from communicating with their relatives in exile. The Tibetan residents of Kanlho and Ngaba prefectures in the TAR reported increased surveillance during the Winter Olympics 2022 held in Beijing. Those who had previously visited India were required to report to the local police station and were questioned daily. They faced additional discrimination as they were considered to incite separatism. Residents of Dragyab and Chamdo counties of the TAR were required to install spyware applications on their cell phones, which allowed their contacts to be monitored. Using these intimidation tactics, those found in possession of “politically sensitive” content, such as recent demolitions of Buddha statues, are arbitrarily detained for two to three months (Anthis, 2022).
The right to free speech and expression is a core human right protected by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Excessive governmental interference in Tibetans’ online and physical activities violates China’s international human rights obligations.
There does not appear to be much change in the state of human rights in Tibet. China continues to institute and practice aggressive policies against Tibetans, thereby consistently violating their rights to life and liberties and being free from torture, arbitrary detention, and enforced disappearance. Other human rights obligations in question are the Tibetans’ right to equality and non-discrimination, religious belief, free speech and expression, and employment.
The 109th Tibetan Independence Day is significant because it coincided with the 2022 Winter Olympics hosted by China. It comes amid grave concerns for the alleged genocide against Tibetan and Uyghur minorities at the hands of the Chinese government.
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