Global Human Rights Defence

The Destruction of Cultural Identity in Tibet: Cultural Genocide?
Source: Tibet Tour

Introduction 

More often than not, the systematic annihilation of cultural identity in Tibet, one that was once condemned as “cultural genocide” by the Dalai Lama, often becomes a bone of contention, especially in the realm of international law (Reuters, 2011). The allegation of such cultural genocide in Tibet against China has also been supported by the Tibet Policy Institute Lobsang Sangay as illustrated in its report titled “Cultural Genocide in Tibet” claiming that, because Tibet is facing the destruction of its own traditions, language, belief and system, cultural genocide is being carried out by China (Tibet Policy Institute, 2017). The demolition of the distinctive Tibetan cultural identity can be seen through the urbanization occurring in the country, the migration of Han Chinese in Tibet, as well as the altering of the Tibetan language in the educational institutions. Considering this context, this article attempts to critically examine the allegation of ‘cultural genocide’ against China from an international law perspective. While this article primarily examines the claim of cultural genocide against China, it also  other international legal standards in the context of cultural destruction in Tibet, especially from the perspective of international human rights law.

The Context of Tibet

The allegation of cultural genocide against China that claims that it has been responsible for the cultural destruction of Tibet is not a new phenomenon since China’s policy has reflected so since the invasion of Tibet in 1949(Chaim, 2010)  The Chinese government, by offering lucrative incentives including better accommodation and employment opportunities with higher salaries to Han Chinese,[1] has encouraged them to move to Tibet as part of their “population transfer policy”. This, in turn, has resulted in a large-scale migration of Han Chinese to Tibet and has, hence, severely impacted the use of the Tibetan language in the region (Chaim, 2010). Fischer’s (2021) research on the census data of China reveals that Tibet Autonomous Region has witnessed a substantial increase of the Han population. Increasing faster in the 2010s in comparison to the 2000s, the Han population in 2020 has reached a level of  , Fischer[2] (2021) identifies that such migration of Han population still comes with some consequences, including the strong political and economic effects experienced by urban employment  (Fischer, 2021). The US Department of State report on Tibet states that Han migrants are benefiting more from the government’s subsidized economic development policies than Tibetans (US Department of State, 2020).

Apart from the influx of Chinese migrants, Tibetans are often made landless as the government expropriates their lands. This has resulted in the extinguishing of Tibetan culture and identity, an act that Dorjee (2017) calls “urbancide”. The process of urbanisation has, on the one hand, motivated many rural Tibetans to accept non-agricultural professions in Tibetan cities by selling their ancestral lands to land developers who, in turn, build industries on such lands. On the other hand, many migrants are moving to Tibet as they are  attracted by the transformation of the agrarian rural areas of Tibet into industrialized ones (Dorjee, 2017). Moreover, due to the government’s forced resettlement policy, a large number of rural and pastoral Tibetans are being moved to cities. That, in turn, allows the government to monitor and control the movements of these residents in the name of social stability (Dorjee, 2017).

Additionally, Tibetan religious beliefs, which were once termed as “poison”, often appear to be struggling to  sustain their existence (Tibet Policy Institute, 2017). In a report by the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), it was illustrated that “they [Chinese] have systematically set out to eradicate this religious belief in Tibet,…”. Furthermore, the ICJ found that ‘acts of genocide had been committed in an attempt to destroy the Tibetans as a religious group’ (Tibet Policy Institute, 2017). In 2017, Larung Gar, the world’s largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery, “a monumental landmark to Tibetan culture, religion, and history”, was demolished by an order from the Chinese government, resulting in the eviction of a significant number of monks, nuns[3] and visiting students (Shaw, 2017).

Additionally, China has recently enforced a decree, attacking the language of Tibet, a core component of culture, and imposing “ ” as the medium of instruction among pre-school and kindergarten children effective from the fall semester of 2021. In doing so, it is aiming to bring all the educational activities under one “national standard” (Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, 2021). The imposition of the “Mandarin” language once again casts the apprehension of Sinicizing[4] the education system as well as the cultural and ethnic values of Tibet. Moreover, Chinese authorities have recently ordered Tibetan Buddhist monasteries to translate Tibetan classroom texts into China’s “common language”, Mandarin, and this process has been marked by a Buddhist scholar as “China’s Sinicization of Tibetan Buddhism” (ANI, 2021).[5]

 Cultural Genocide and the   of International Law

The general conception of “cultural genocide” can be delineated as the destruction of culture which usually involves an attack towards the elements of a certain group beyond the physical and/or biological one and the attempts of demolishing its wider institutions. It can be operated in various ways and usually takes into account the suppression of the language, limitation on the usage of traditional practices, abolishment of the religious institutions, the persecution of religious leaders as well as the attacks on intellectuals and academics of a group (Dunnink, 2009). However, despite the ramifications caused by cultural genocide, it is neither acknowledged in the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide nor is it seen as “illegal” under the customary international law, unlike (physical) genocide (Sandhar, 2015).

Raphael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer who was very instrumental during the adoption of the 1948 Convention, strongly advocated for the legal recognition of cultural genocide. His understanding of both physical and cultural genocide, conceived from his unpublished notes, indicate that he regarded both as ones which occurred within one process and ones that could be committed by resorting to numerous means (Kingston, 2015).[6] However, such a view and the strong support for the inclusion of cultural genocide was much debated during the 1948 Convention’s drafting. The strongest opposition came from many western countries, notably the Americas. Surprisingly, China favoured the inclusion of cultural genocide (Chaim, 2010).[7] However, cultural genocide was eventually not included in the Convention due to the lack of unequivocal political will from the states.

Consequently, the alleged claim of “cultural genocide” in Tibet against China arguably finds no roots in the Convention, since harming the cultural symbols does not necessarily reach the threshold of the physical destruction of a group required to be a genocidal act. Now, however, the question of the applicability of customary law might arise. In this regard, Chaim, in identifying the status of cultural genocide as customary international law, points out that the requirement of consistent acceptance of the prohibition of cultural genocide by a large number of states has not been fulfilled yet. In fact, many states such as the United States, Australia allow the moderate “linguistic assimilation” and that, in turn, fails the threshold of cultural genocide to be part of customary international (Chaim, 2010). Even in the case of Radislav Krstić, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia found that the definition of cultural genocide is limited in a sense that it does not go beyond the acts of biological or physical destruction.[8] Therefore, the annihilation of the social or cultural characteristics, such as the language of a certain group, which identifies their distinct identity as a group, does not fall within the periphery of the definition of genocide (Mako, 2012).

Cultural Rights and International Human Rights Frameworks

While the concept of “cultural genocide” failed to be included in the Genocide Convention, the importance of culture for the full realisation of human rights and its necessity for the prevention of mass atrocities have witnessed a gradual, yet active, acknowledgement through the other international legal frameworks, notably international human rights laws (Novic, 2016). The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), namely the Articles 22 and 27, speak of the right to cultural life by identifying its importance for one’s personal development, among others(UDHR, 1948)  However, as it is a declaration and, hence, not enforceable, China does not have any legal obligation to implement this framework. Nevertheless, China has signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)(ICCPR, 1966). Art. 27 of the ICCPR affirms minorities’ rights to enjoy their cultural rights, including the right to practise one’s own religion and language. In this regard, the status of minorities does not depend on the states’ recognition (Chaim, 2010).

However, since China has not “ratified” the Covenant, it is not bound by any specific provisions. Nevertheless, it should not commit any acts contravening the purpose of the Covenant. Furthermore, China has ratified the International Covenant on the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and Art.15 of this Covenant binds state parties to ensure the enjoyment of the cultural rights of every person for the maintenance of human dignity, inter alia (ICESCR, 1966). As the General Comment No. 21 points out, the right to cultural life is inextricably linked with the right to education which helps the individuals and communities exchange their values, customs, religion, language and more. Additionally, China has also ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC, 1989), which is also “particularly illustrative of the cultural trend in the codification of thematic human rights, especially with regard to the right to education” (Novic, 2016).

 Conclusion

The article exemplifies that the claim of cultural genocide, in this particular case due to the destruction of culture in Tibet, comes with its challenges. For instance, it identifies that cultural genocide as an international crime has neither been adopted in the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide nor has it passed the test to be part of the customary international law. Hence, a human rights-based approach was adopted to examine the claim of the cultural destruction in  Tibet especially in light of ICCPR, ICESCR, among others  While China has not ratified ICCPR other than signing it, it should not do any act that would contravene the purpose of the convention. Moreover, China has ratified ICESCR and hence it is bound by the convention to ensure the enjoyment of the cultural rights of every person for the maintenance of human dignity.

[1] The majority ethnic group in China is the Han by making up 92% of the population of mainlands and they are also the world’s largest ethnic group constituting the 18% of all people of the earth. Despite having 55 other ethnic groups who are recognised officially, it is the Han who people usually think of when they hear the word “Chinese” (Deason, 2018).

[2] Andrew M. Fischer is a Professor (associate) of Social Policy and Development Studies  at the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague, The Netherlands. His research interest primarily lies in international development and has been involved in this area for the last 30 years. He did his PhD on “China’s regional development strategies in western China and their impact on ethnic minorities, principally Tibetans”, among others. He also spent seven years with Tibetan refugees in India prior to his PhD (ChinaFile, 2021).

[3] Some Tibetan monastics have even been compelled to undergo “political training” with a view to training some Buddhist teachers proficient in “state ideology” (Human Rights Watch, 2018). Tibetan monks and scholars who question the policy of the government impacting Tibetan culture, religious belief, among others, are often charged with “inciting separatism” and face harsh treatments in prison (Free Tibet, 2021).

[4] The word “sinicize” means “to make something more Chinese in character”.

[5] In addition to this, Chinese authorities also urge the Tibetans to marry Han Chinese with the aim of strengthening the “ethnic unity”. In this regard, however, Aryang Tsewang Gyalpo, a spokesman for Tibet’s India-based exile government, the Central Tibetan Administration said- “On the surface, China’s model of ‘ethnic unity couples’ may sound like a good idea, but in reality, China’s implementation of these new regulations is just an attempt to ‘Sinicize’ the Tibetan people by eradicating Tibetan religion, culture, language, and identity.China is trying to turn the Tibetan people into Han Chinese.” (Radio Free Asia, 2020).

[6] One of the reasons for such advocacy by Lemikin could be that “culture was as necessary for human group life as basic needs were for individual physical well-being; culture constituted a basic need for human existence, and therefore the destruction of cultural symbols was a form of genocide” (Kingston, 2015).

[7] Mr. Tsien, the Chinese delgate at that time, identified- “Even more harmful than physical genocide or biological genocide, since it worked below the surface and attacked a whole population attempting to deprive it of its ancestral culture and to destroy its very language” (Chaim, 2010).

[8] See Prosecutor v Krstic, Trial Chamber Judgment, para 580. However,  Prosecutor v. Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi case, the ICC taken into account the  destruction of cultural property (referred as protected building) resulting in “moral harm” towards the Timbuktu community in Mali. Therefore, the Chamber orders that reparations must be awarded on the basis of such harm, among others. See Prosecutor v. Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi, Trial Chamber VIII, Para 104.

Bibliography

ANI. (2021, October 7). Beijing pushes Tibetan Buddhists to translate classroom texts to Mandarin.
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Chaim, C. (2010). Cultural Genocide in Tibet? A Look at China’s Linguistic Policies and Possible Breaches of International Law. 
Asia-Pacific Journal on Human Rights and the Law (1) (2010) 39-55.

 

Deason, R. (2018, May 16). An introduction to China’s Han People. Culture Trip.https://theculturetrip.com/asia/china/articles/an-introduction-to-chinas-han-people/.

Dunnink, C.M. (2009). Tibet- a case of Cultural Genocide. Arno Uvt. http://arno.uvt.nl/show.cgi?fid=107528.

Dorjee, R. (2017, March 17). China’s Urbancide in Tibet.
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Fischer, A.M. (2021, September 2). How much does Beijing control the ethnic makeup of Tibet?. China Filehttps://www.chinafile.com/reporting-opinion/viewpoint/how-much-does-beijing-control-ethnic-makeup-of-tibet.

Kingston, L. (2015). The Destruction of Identity: Cultural Genocide and Indigenous Peoples. Journal of Human Rights. https://doi.org/10.1080/14754835.2014.886951.

Mako, S. (2012). Cultural Genocide and Key International Instruments: Framing the Indigenous Experience. International Journal on Minority and Group Rights. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2087175.


Novic, E. (2016). The Concept of Cultural Genocide: An International Law Perspective. Oxford University Press. https://oxford.universitypressscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198787167.001.0001/acprof-9780198787167.

Radio Free Asia (2020, May 6). China Says Marriages Between Tibetans, Chinese Will Strengthen ‘Ethnic Unity’. Radio Free Asia. https://www.rfa.org/english/news/tibet/marriages-05062020165348.html.

Reuters. (2011, November 7). Dalai Lama blames Tibetan burnings on “cultural genocide”. Reutershttps://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-tibet-dalailama-idUSTRE7A619X20111107.

Sandhar, J.K. (2015). Cultural Genocide in Tibet: The Failure of Article 8 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Protecting the Cultural Rights of Tibetans.
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Shaw, S. (2017, August 3). China Tears Down the Tibetan City in the Sky.
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Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy. (2021, September 17). China Enforces Compulsory Mandarin Chinese Learning For Preschool Children in Tibet. Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy. https://tchrd.org/china-enforces-compulsory-mandarin-chinese-learning-for-preschool-children-in-ibet/.


Tibet Policy Institute. (2017). Cultural Genocide in Tibet. Tibet Policy Institute. https://tibetpolicy.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Tibetocide.pdf.

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