UN Rights Body Helps Keep Spotlight on Tibet Abuses

By Richard Finney
tibet-un-march-dec-2012.jpg Protestors march to the United Nations General Assembly Building in New York in recognition of International Human Rights Day, Dec. 10, 2012.

The U.N. Human Rights Council may be criticized as ineffective by some but remains a useful forum to hold China accountable for alleged rights violations in Tibet, experts say as Beijing eyes a seat this year in the Geneva-based forum.

Reports from inside Tibet and from Tibetan-populated counties of Chinese provinces regularly cite cases of Chinese security forces firing on unarmed Tibetans protesting Beijing’s rule, of the beating and torture of Tibetan prisoners, and of other abuses.

Just this week, Chinese troops were accused of opening fire on a crowd of Tibetans demanding the release of a villager who had led protests against orders to fly the Chinese flag from their homes in the Tibet Autonomous Region’s Driru (in Chinese, Biru) county, wounding about 60 of them.

While “little or no concrete success” has resulted to date from advocacy at the U.N. for Tibet, “governments and experts continue to see the raising of concerns on Tibet as important,” Todd Stein, Director of Government Relations for the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet, told RFA.

“At this point, advocacy for Tibet within the U.N. system is mainly about ‘naming and shaming,’” Stein said.

Periodic review processes within the U.N. Human Rights Council, to which China belongs, “require robust documentation … which keeps the spotlight on China’s behavior and forces their officials to respond with statements of increasingly questionable validity.”

Though U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay has called on China to allow special rapporteurs—experts charged with reporting to the U.N. on special areas of concern—to visit and observe conditions in Tibet, “China has not complied with these requests,” Stein noted.

“[This] reinforces the notion that they are not in compliance [with international human rights standards] and ‘have something to hide,’” he said.

'Bad faith' response

Additionally, China’s “bad faith” response to criticisms in the U.N. Human Rights Council has opened the eyes of Council members to China’s unwillingness to improve on human rights, said Sophie Richardson, China director at the Washington office of Human Rights Watch.

Governments that are invested in making the Council work better “have been really taken aback by the Chinese government’s behavior in its reviews,” Richardson said. “And I think that has formed an impression of China that is much larger than what went on in the actual review itself.”

China’s next review in the Council, in which its rights record is examined and commented on by other member states, is scheduled for October 22, Richardson said.

“Several governments raised [the subject of] Tibet last time around, and I’m reasonably confident that several of them will do so again,” she said.

The U.N. Human Rights Council was created in March 2006 to replace the U.N.'s widely discredited and highly politicized Human Rights Commission, but it has also been widely criticized for failing to change many of the commission's practices, including electing candidates accused of serious human rights violations.

Human Rights Watch has asked the Chinese government, which is seeking a seat in November at the U.N. Human Rights Council, to ratify without further delay an important international human rights treaty on civil and political rights it signed 15 years ago

China signed the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), on October 5, 1998, but has yet to ratify it, despite repeated promises to do so, the group said.

“China wants to join the U.N.’s top human rights body, but it won’t submit itself to the standards that body is sworn to apply,” Richardson said.

China is the only country among the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council not to have joined the ICCPR, which guarantees essential rights ranging from the right to trial before an independent and impartial court to freedom of expression and political participation through regular and free elections.

China has rejected all outside criticism of its policies in Tibet as interference in China’s domestic affairs, claiming the complaints are orchestrated by a group, or “clique,” led by exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.

Spanish court cases

Pressure can also be brought against China in the form of investigations conducted by foreign courts under the principle of “universal jurisdiction,” said Spanish Tibet supporter Alan Cantos, who, together with lawyer Jose Esteve, has begun separate proceedings in Spanish courts.

One case resulted in a March 30, 2011 finding by the National Court of Spain that China should be investigated for “war crimes” committed in Tibet from 1972 to 2004, though a second investigation was shelved in February 2010 because of a change in Spanish law restricting universal-jurisdiction inquiries to cases involving Spain or citizens or residents of Spain.

“This second case is under appeal at the Spanish Constitutional Court, who have not given their verdict yet,” said Cantos. “They have been stalling now for over a year.”

If the case is reopened, and if arrest warrants are issued for Chinese leaders, “they will not be able to travel without a substantial level of risk of being arrested in any country that has an extradition or judicial treaty with Spain, which is most of the countries in the world,” Cantos said.

And even if no Chinese leaders are brought to trial, Cantos said, proceedings against them to date have still called attention to their actions in Tibet.

“At least that is how we view our work,” he said.  “You go as far as you can.”

It is unlikely in any case that top-ranking Chinese leaders, who enjoy immunity from prosecution while in office, will ever be tried in foreign courts for actions taken in support of China’s policies in Tibet, according to a report issued by the Dharamsala, India-based Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD).

“Focusing on mid-level government officials and individuals currently governing the Tibetan areas of the [People’s Republic of China] is the most effective approach,” says the Sept. 1 report, “Ending Impunity: Crimes Against Humanity in Tibet.”

Criminal prosecutions, travel bans, targeted sanctions, and corporate boycotts can make it more difficult for mid-ranking Chinese officials to serve abroad on trade or diplomatic missions, TCHRD said.

“[And] if these officials cannot contribute to the PRC’s international priorities, they are more likely to be replaced and their careers will suffer.”


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