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Tibet: will political power defy international law?

Eva Herzer [co-founder, International Tibet Support Network and the Tibet Justice Center]: "The United Nations Charter, Covenants and Declarations set forth the internationally agreed upon standards of human ethics and decency necessary to protect the integrity and dignity of individuals and peoples. The current massive uprising of the Tibetan people is a textbook example of what happens when the politically powerful defy these standards. China can not longer contain the long standing suffering and resentment in Tibet. Tibetans, from Lhasa to the most remote villages and monasteries, are risking imprisonment, torture and their lives to assert their right to self-determination, which China forcefully took from them over half a century ago. Tibetans are taking to the streets, carrying the picture of their leader, the Dalai Lama, calling for freedom and raising their national flag, all acts strictly prohibited in Chinese occupied Tibet.

China's propaganda efforts of portraying Tibetans as violent people who will send suicide terrorist squads to the Olympic Games and of accusing their Noble laureate leader, the Dalai Lama, of being "a jackal wrapped in a habit, a monster with human face and animal heart" is a desperate attempt to divert international attention from the inevitable necessity to respect the Tibetans' right to self-determination. This right is anchored in Chapter 1, Article 1 of the UN Charter. In 1970, the UN General Assembly declared the right to self-determination to entitle a people, such as the Tibetans, to freely determine their own political status and to pursue their economic, social and cultural development. This right is independent of and separate from the right to territorial integrity, i.e. historical sovereignty. In other words, regardless of whether Tibetans were a sovereign nation in the past, a matter of disagreement between Tibet and China, Tibetans do have the right to self-determination under the UN Charter. Further, the UN Vienna Declaration of 1993 states that when there is a conflict between a state's claim to territorial integrity and a people's right to self-determination, the people's right to all expressions of self-determination (including independence) prevails if the state has not protected the rights of the people or promoted their welfare and human rights. This is clearly the case in Tibet.

However, under the non-violent leadership of the Dalai Lama, Tibetans are demanding much less than they are entitled to. They are willing to compromise on an autonomous arrangement for Tibet by which they would govern their internal affairs and China would have power over defense and most matters of foreign affairs (however not just for the so called "Tibet Autonomous Region" but for all of their historical Tibetan territory). This presents a unique opportunity for China to develop national harmony, end the suffering of the Tibetans and, in the process, gain the long sought after moral legitimacy necessary for the claim to world power status, which has eluded China so far.

The international community also has an important role to play in assuring respect for international law. With the Olympics approaching fast, international political leaders and corporate sponsors should take a decisive stance to condition their participation in Olympic events on China's immediate stop of the military lock up of Tibet and a prompt start of negotiations with the Dalai Lama and his exile government. International leaders should remember from the 1936 Berlin Olympics how standing in the Olympic limelight, shoulder to shoulder, with a totalitarian Olympic host strengthens and legitimizes totalitarian regimes and their defiance of international norms.

So long as political power and economic interests are prioritized over compliance with international law and non-violent solutions, the message to those who are oppressed, colonized and discriminated against will be that peaceful solutions are impossible. What options does that leave open? Violence? And who suffers when violence prevails?"

Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.

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Professional Commentary is JURIST's platform for newsmakers, activists and legal experts to comment on national and international legal developments.

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