The consistent disintegration of Tibetan culture: A human rights law perspective
Department: Tibet Team
Author: Alexandros Anthis
The suppression of Tibetan culture has persisted for decades. Cultural genocide has not been codified in international law, and its application to Tibet is controversial as it would have complex implications for all involved parties. Thus, the review of relevant incidents from a human rights law perspective could prove a more effective exercise.
An overview of facts
Cultural oppression can be traced back to the country’s cultural revolution in the 1960s (Southerland, 2016). However, the repression of Tibetan culture intensified at the end of 2021, when Tibetan religious symbols were desecrated as part of a wider crackdown by Chinese authorities. The campaign took a heavy toll on Tibetan cultural buildings and artefacts; it left obliterated monasteries, demolished Buddha statues, and destroyed Tibetan prayer wheels. Indicatively, in the Draggo County of Tibet’s Kham region, Chinese officials dismantled two giant Buddha statues along with 45 prayer wheels (Lhamo, 2022). Prior to the demolitions, sources assert that state authorities destroyed the Draggo Monastery’s Gaden Namgyal Monastic school, which was later abandoned as the damage rendered its facilities utterly unusable (Dolma, 2021).
In the case of the statues, the authorities’ justification concerned the noncompliance with local building regulations regarding the height of the statues (Staff Reporter, 2021). Similarly, the destruction of the Monastic school was premised on a violation of zoning law (Ngodup, 2021). On both occasions, Tibetans proclaimed that they possessed the necessary permits that had been used to initially erect the statues and the building. Moreover, as sources indicate, the grounds provided for the demolitions by the Chinese authorities f did not contain any reference to a law violation with respect to the prayer wheels.
These events triggered protests by Tibetan monks and civilians. Nonetheless, their reactions were contained by Chinese forces resulting in numerous arrests. According to reports, many arrests were made on suspicion of circulating information about the demolitions to external outlets. The same sources indicate that the detainees were victims of torture and inhuman and degrading treatment during confinement (Lhamo, 2022).
This article will focus on the violation of Tibetan’s cultural and religious rights. The primary reason for this topical choice is the recurrence of the phenomenon throughout the region’s history (Klein, 2011). Moreover, the article is founded on the perception that the orchestrated cultural disintegration of a targeted group can be a preliminary stage in a larger objective (Lemkin, 1944). The following analysis will be limited to human rights protection norms within the legal order of the People’s Republic of China as well as international law.
A. The Constitution of the PRC
Article 36 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China provides for a basic but rather ambiguous protection of religious freedom (O’Connell, 2020). It expressly states that citizens are free to exercise religion though the following section specifies that their chosen religious doctrines should abide by what is characterized as “normal” by the Chinese State. This characterization is then delineated as any activity that does not upset public order, threaten public health, or conflict with the State’s educational policies. However, the term is not explicated in the Constitution or other legislation (Tibet Watch, 2007). Arguably, the criterion of normality can circumscribe any practice that exceeds its definitional limits. Notwithstanding every citizen’s fundamental duty to respect the laws and, by extension, the rights of others, the ambiguity of the term “normal” leaves the door ajar for subjective and potentially unjust interpretations.
B. The Religious Affairs Regulations
The Religious Affairs Regulations’ text essentially echoes the constitutional mandate. The practice of any religion is protected, granted that it does not contradict the normality criterion. An international organisation has described these regulations as part of China’s security policy, aiming to increase state control over the activity of particular social groups (International Campaign for Tibet, 2016). Therefore, the criticism that the Religious Affairs Regulations fail to protect Tibetans’ religious freedom can be sustained.
At this point, it is important to note that the domestic legislation of the People’s Republic of China contains numerous clauses in support of the right to freedom of religion (Ping Xiong 2013). Thus, further research is necessary to produce a more comprehensive result regarding the right’s protection. However, the author’s understanding of Chinese legislation is limited by the available sources, which are conceivably not explicit. Therefore, a concrete examination of the Chinese authorities’ claims regarding the physical properties of the statues or the monastery contravening local building policy could not be substantiated. Yet, recourse can be sought at the international level. Consequently, the focus will turn to international treaties for the protection of religious freedom.
A. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Among other international treaties, the PRC has signed the UDHR. Article 18 provides for the protection of religious freedom as a fundamental right. According to the UN Human Rights Committee, the ambit of Article 18 extends to religious rituals, physical places of worship, ritual objects, symbols, as well as holidays and days of rest (Human Rights Committee, 1993). Evidently, the UDHR protects the Tibetans’ right to practice their religion in their chosen facilities and to utilise relevant symbols or objects. Thus, the recent incidents concerning the demolition of statues and prayer wheels as well as the wrecking of the Monastic School conflict with China’s obligations to respect religious freedom stemming from the UDHR.
It is worth noting that the UDHR’s protection of religion has been criticised for stipulating a minimalistic enunciation of religious liberty without a consistent meaning throughout time (Lindkvist, 2013). Yet, this evaluation of Article 18 could expand its ambit and provide for its application on a case-by-case basis. Hence, even according to this interpretation, the Tibetans’ religious rights should have been afforded protection.
B. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights is a comprehensive instrument in international human rights law ratified by the PRC since 2001. Article 15(1)(a) specifically refers to the State’s obligation to ensure every citizen’s right to participate in cultural life. Notwithstanding the absence of a precise reference to religion, the provision is an implicit barrier that prohibits state interference with cultural practises and goods (Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 2009). Under the premise that religion is a component of culture (Edara, 2017) and the ICESCR’s protection of the right to religious freedom is implied, it becomes evident that the actions by the Chinese authorities infringed the Tibetans’ cultural rights as preserved by the Covenant.
c. The United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief
Another international instrument to gauge the Chinese State’s actions is the United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief. Articles 1, 6 (a)(c)(h) of the Declaration refer to the right to freedom of religion, the right to engage in religious practises and the right to perform ceremonies within the precept of one’s religious beliefs. In other words, the Declaration fleshes out the notion of religious freedom and subsumes the right to assemble and establish places of worship (Dziedzic, 2013). Subsequently, the Tibetans’ right to congregate and set up religious facilities falls under the protection of the United Nations Declaration.
The foregoing analysis aimed to demonstrate how the Chinese authorities’ recent actions in Tibet contravened the PRC’s legal obligations to safeguard the right to freedom of religion. Arguably, the PRC’s domestic legislation offers a certain degree of protection, albeit its internal parameters restrict its potential. For this reason, it is useful to measure the legality of the narrated events based on the mandate of international human rights instruments that the PRC has adopted. The discussion on the violation of a minority’s cultural and religious rights is important because the effect of these practises is often tacit since they do not always employ physical violence or produce actual victims. Hence, these cases attract a lessened degree of reproach. Last, it is important to bring the topic to the fore to raise awareness and prevent perpetrators from enjoying impunity. Otherwise, there is a risk of normalising the abuse and reshaping global human rights by weakening the protection of vulnerable groups or individuals.
All in all, the PRC’s laws can be understood to allow for cultural relativism. Despite the ambiguity of the state discourse, the current form of its legislation leaves room for the implementation of the rights arising from international instruments (Chaney, 2017). Nevertheless, apart from the discussion on the instruments’ normative capabilities, the need for consistency between law and practice is prevalent.
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