Tibet vs China: a human-rights showdown

openDemocracy Opendemocracy
13 March 2008

Part 1: openDemocracy speaks to Comite de Apoyo del Tibet

Emilie Hunter, speaking on behalf of Comite de Apoyo del Tibet, describes the background to the lawsuit and its purpose. What do they hope to achieve and how will this impact current Sino-Tibetan relations?


Click to listen to part one (11.58 mins)
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My name is Emilie Hunter and I’m the international press officer for Comite de Apoyo del Tibet (CAT). In June 2005 the CAT presented a lawsuit towards the Spanish national courts requesting them to open investigations against the Chinese authorities for genocide in Tibet. In January 2006 the case was accepted and on 5 June the first Tibetan victim was able to testify at a national court about the suffering that he has gone through himself, and also of his experiences in Tibet and in exile.

Q. Genocide is a very large charge and you obviously have individual witnesses but how does the suffering of one individual or several individuals add up to genocide?

It's a combination of the personal testimonies of these individuals who themselves have suffered but also the accounts of the family suffering and the oral history that's passed down to them which backs up what we believe are outstanding and overwhelmingly clear policy decisions taken by the Chinese government, and the personal testimonies of these individuals verify the high level policy decisions. On one end you have policy that is being made by the central government, it's being implemented and the victims are witnesses… are experiencing those things and so it filters through in that way.

Tightrope to Tibet, Celia Washington The Beijing to Lhasa railway opens in 2006, the year of the dog; as in every other year in China, over two million dogs and cats will be skinned alive to supply the fur trade.

Q. What is the purpose of the lawsuit?

The purpose of the lawsuit is to seek justice for fifty years of impunity and suffering that the Tibetan people have faced. We wish the full hand of justice to be dealt, we want there to be a fair, open and honest trial, and for those people who are found to be guilty for them to be sentenced and imprisoned for the crimes they have found to have committed.

Q. Who are those people?

There are seven Chinese officials in total. The leading two are Jiang Zemin, the former president of China, and Li Peng, the former prime minister.

Q. Do you have any realistic expectations that this case would result in the arrest and imprisonment of what are extremely powerful, prominent people?

There is a saying in Spanish that says the last thing you lose is hope, and on behalf of the Tibetan people and ourselves we believe that justice and truth to prevail at the end. We expect there to be a long road ahead but we go along that road with a firm conviction that justice will eventually be done and impunity against Chinese officials will be ended.

Q. And what would change if that were the case?

I think what will change is that the Tibetan victims who suffered themselves, either personally or through having to live in exile, will have a sense of justice. They will have felt for the first time in the history of exile the suffering that they've gone through has been recognised in a court procedure which they've yet to have experienced, and it's important for those victims to go through that process. Also we do believe that this could open up the truth of what's happened and possibly lead to better relations and understanding between ordinary Chinese and Tibetan people.

Q. Does the Chinese government recognise the authority of this court?

They have issued a number of outspoken, fairly critical statements from Beijing however they've tended to confuse the separation of powers that exist in democracy and their statements have been directed towards the Spanish government saying that the government should stop this case. We know that in democratic systems that there is a degree of separation between the judiciary and the government, and the Spanish government have rightly responded that this is in the hands of the court and the court must do their work.

Today’s special, Prue Robinson I have observed the Chinese ability to eat practically everything that lives. The piece of work here reflects this predisposition and is my response to their attempts to annihilate a religion, a race, a culture that has been made easier and given new impetus with the opening of the high speed rail link.

Q. People who criticise the willingness of the Spanish Court to take on cases such as this argue that there is a certain frivolity to it. It's not that the charges are frivolous or that the case in itself is not serious, but that the likelihood of there being any serious judicial outcome is so slight that it risks bringing the question of universal jurisdiction and international law into disrepute. What do you say to those charges?

I find them unfortunately pessimistic. I can appreciate that this is a long process it's difficult, but seeking justice for these grave crimes is not an easy path and it has to be done … for the sense of moral obligation, and if we believe in democracy and these values of freedom we have to take these tough paths to try and achieve justice in the world. When cases are well-planned, when they have an overwhelming body of evidence you shouldn't shy away from seeking justice through the courts because of the fears of some people who believe it may weaken international jurisdiction.

The court themselves, when they admitted this case, accepted that there was overwhelming evidence to support that genocide had occurred, so if this was a weak case with very little backing then possibly there would be grounds to say that it's weakening international jurisdiction. But when the grounds are over whelming you are morally obliged to do something about it.

Q. Can you give me an example of some of the policies and practices that are being invoked as evidence in this case?

There are a range of accusations – obviously genocide is the largest it encompasses a wide range of charges. The important thing of genocide is not that it aims to wipe out an entire population but that there is a clear intent to reduce and restrict that population both in their number and also in their cultural practise. The case also includes charges of terrorism and crimes against humanity, which includes religious persecution which has been widely reported in Tibet. It also includes forced disappearances and arbitrary execution, apartheid and racial discrimination and then the prevention of reproduction, which has received less attention in the past but is shocking for those who have gone through it – forced sterilisation, and late abortions. So this case looks into all of those charges.

Q. Your critics might also argue that this is an exercise in political embarrassment rather than justice?

Absolutely not. We don't wish to embarrass the Chinese for anything that they haven't committed. There is no reason to be embarrassed about things that you haven't done. We seek a fair trial through the court of law which we believe in, and we hope and we aim that the Chinese also have a chance to explain and defend themselves. This is not to embarrass but to come to a resolution to the suffering of the Tibetan people and to work towards the future of a safer more peaceful Tibetan plateau.

Q. Emilie are you concerned at all that this lawsuit could negatively affect what are the first talks in years between the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama?

The fourth round of negotiations occurred three to four days after the lawsuit was actually taken to the court. When we took the case to court it was amid high media frenzy and the meeting still went ahead in Switzerland between the representatives of the Dalai Lama and a number of Chinese representatives. We believe that the lawsuit so far hasn't affected the progress of those talks. We now know that there is another round of talks going ahead in parallel to the progression of this case. The discussions between government representatives and the Dalai Lama representatives run along a different course to the course of justice and the judiciary.

The Tibetan government in exile convened along democratic principles and models and therefore there is recognition of the separation of these two powers and processes. The case that we've brought against China is essentially one of the past, it's what happened previously, and these negotiations between the Dalai Lama's representatives and the Chinese is for the future. So again, there's another distinction between the two, and we believe that there is no reason why they shouldn't go ahead for them to achieve their own separate goals.

Unknown title, Gonkar Gyatso

Q. If there came a moment if you had to choose, or when it was felt, that the case was putting progress of the talks in jeopardy, what would you do?

Firstly, it would be for the Tibetan victims involved in the case to decide. They would need to know the full reasons on both sides, on all accounts, about why and wherefore. Of course we would respect their wishes at the end of the day. We do believe that justice should be fulfilled to the maximum here, but this is a case on and for the Tibetan people and it is for those victims to decide what to do, and we're there to support them through that.

Q. You say this is going to be a long process, how long? When do you expect there to be some result from this action?

It's difficult to say. This is the first case ever to have been accepted against China vis-à-vis the Tibetans. We can look to examples of other cases that have occurred in Spain and universal jurisdiction cases around the world, but we have to play it by ear. It could be a few years, it could be longer, but we believe that it's a worthwhile process.

Q. What's the next step?

The lawsuit is currently in its investigation stages. A number of testimonies and statements will be submitted, also verbal testimonies in front of the judge. The judge will then decide on his questioning of the Chinese officials and we'll progress form there.

Q. It's unlikely, looking at it now, that Chinese officials will present themselves for questioning. How then will the case proceed?

We'll cross that bridge when we come to it! Obviously we are making preparations now, but the Spanish will have the power to issue international arrest warrants for them. Obviously there will be difficulties, these officials don't travel outside of China, but we will do all we can within the international field and through international agreements to ensure that they can be brought to justice in Spain.

Unknown title, Losang Gyatso

Part 2: openDemocracy speaks to Tenzin Tsundue

Tenzin Tsundue, Tibetan activist and poet, talks to openDemocracy about his experiences as a political prisoner in Tibet and describes why the Chinese authorities should be made accountable for their actions.


Click to listen to part two (20.15 mins)
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My name is Tenzin Tsundue. I'm a Tibetan born and living in India. I'm here in the UK briefly, for five days. I'm submitting my deposition, my testimony, as a witness in the lawsuit against China on charges of genocide in Tibet.

Q. What case are you arguing? To what are you testifying?

I'm a Tibetan born in India, but in 1997 I went to Tibet, to see Tibet for myself and to experience and to live there and to join the Tibetans in our freedom struggle. While I was there I was arrested by the border police and thrown in jail. I was in jail for three months and during my experience I saw a lot of injustices and bad treatment of prisoners. In Lhasa I met a political prisoner who was twenty-eight years-old, from a district just north of Lhasa, he had been in prison for one year and two months and had not even had a trial. That is just one example of suffering. He told me how he was tortured, humiliated and badly treated. He was fighting his own case from the prison.

Prisoners feel absolutely vulnerable in the hands of the mechanism of the police and military. I myself experienced that, as a Tibetan there, though essentially a foreigner as I was coming from India, I always felt that I would be killed or imprisoned forever. This is the threat they were putting on me. I was charged for "separatist activities".

Q. But that's a fair charge? After all, you entered Tibet illegally and you say part of your purpose was to assist the freedom struggle, so the Chinese have a point don't they?

China is a country that has occupied our country, and I am going there to free our country. I have been personally deprived of a home, and a right to live with my own family and relatives. Today I live in India, but I'm not an Indian citizen, I'm not a Tibetan citizen. Where is my citizenship? I have nothing. China has deprived us of all of these things.

Even in exile we have been deprived of basic human rights. Why can't I go to my own country and live there? They are charging us of separatism, actually it is China who has separated Tibet and broken the Tibetan families – half in exile, half in Tibet, and those in Tibet have been brutally suppressed by rule of law and police. So tell me, who is separatist and who is not?

Q. You say that the conditions inside the prisons are very bad and that the law is used in a very negative way. It could be said that that's generally true of China, which is not noted for its rule of law or benign treatment of prisoners. What is it about conditions in Tibet that make you think Tibet is special in this respect?

The 1989 the Tiananmen Square massacre is a very good example. All over the world we have known how China and the state brutally suppress the voices for freedom and democracy and free press, and rights for individual expression. That is nothing compared to how China treats the Tibetans in Tibet. They look at the Tibetans as separating Tibet from the "motherland". They treat the Tibetans in much worse condition.

For them, no crime can compared to activities for the freedom of Tibet, even though all these activities have remained non-violent in nature. Going to the street and saying "free Tibet", organising meetings, exchanging opinions on the freedom of Tibet putting up posters. For these cases Tibetans have been put in jail and arbitrarily tortured. There is no sense of justice. This is how they suppress the voice of freedom inside Tibet and we want to redress this. We're outside Tibet. We have the freedom to speak.

I very strongly believe that with international support we can bring it to the notice of China. Sometimes I think that Chinese leaders are drunk with power. They are megalomaniac leaders thinking they can do anything and everything. But we can seek justice from an international court of law.

Train to Tibet #1, Losang Gyatso

Q. This weekend the railway opened from Golmud to Lhasa. The Chinese government argues that this is an example of the development of Tibet. That this is a huge investment and extraordinary engineering feat, and it is one example of many from the central government find that have been invested in Tibet to bring Tibetans a better life. What do you say to that argument?

The railways into Tibet is a long-term goal of China. They have always wanted to build this railway because it is only through the railway that they can make Tibet into another Chinese territory. So in the beginning in the 1950s they first built the network of roads into Tibet and this brought in the Chinese military in Tibet, and this acted as a way to take out mineral resources from Tibet into China. This is how they used the routes.

Today they have built the railways; Golmud to Lhasa is the first, now they have planned three more. This would make it a huge network of railways bringing Chinese population into Tibet and take out mineral resources. They've already cut huge areas of trees form the south-east of Tibet which has caused environmental disaster in the north-east of India, Burma and Bangladesh.

China has always wanted to bring down the level of population density in mainland China. There are millions of unemployed graduates who have skills in electronics, carpentry, and there is no opportunity for them in China. This is what China wanted to shift to Tibet. This developmental scheme is all about China, not Tibet. Tibetans can't take part in these developmental schemes – they have no education, no understanding. Naturally they will say "we need Chinese experts, Chinese skilled workers" so all the high-end jobs will be taken by Chinese people. They have the plan to bring in almost 200 million Chinese people into Tibet when the population of Tibet is only six million. The whole of Tibet would be submerged by the Chinese population; there will be nothing left for the Tibetans. This railway is going to be the deal knoll for Tibet.

Q. 200 million seems a very high figure for a country that historically has a population of little more than four or five million. How could that possibly work?

Already the population in Tibet is six million, and the population of Chinese is more than ten million. In some cities, from example Lhasa, the population of Chinese is much more, these are the skilled workers. I went to Tibet in 1997 there was a driver who told me that Tibetans are lazy people who beg, and they cannot understand science or technology. They cannot take part in urban development. He had already accepted that mentality and he has been working for the Chinese government as a driver for the police. People's minds have been invaded and occupied by Chinese indoctrination. Tibetans will always feel inferior inside Tibet, and this is how they occupy the Tibetan land.

Q. If this case proceeds and eventually brings a result, a result that you want, what would it mean for you and for people inside and outside Tibet?

For the past fifty years, we have been accused and charged arbitrarily for separatism. His holiness the Dalai Lama is supposed to be the leader of our movement, so always we have been charged for wanting basic human rights, for wanting to live in our country with freedom and a sense of dignity. With this lawsuit we seek a redressal of all these injustices. I know that our people have suffered so much.

This is not revenge. We are only asking them to have a second opinion of what they are doing. Through the Spanish court we can bring it to the attention of international awareness. This is happening in Tibet. In the court when justice has been delivered people all over the world will come to know through the court of law what has been decided. For me, it is more to speak to the Chinese conscience: do you not for a while think of what you are doing to the Tibetans? I just want to say to the Chinese leaders, "hello, your foot is on my foot, do you not understand? Can you just lift it up? I am suffering, and when I speak you do not hear because you are too big and too tall."

Buddha has woken up, Sonam Tsering The train has come and Buddha is awakened by the noise, “where should I go?”

Q. In the past two years though the Chinese government has been talking, for the first time in many years, to representatives of the Dalai Lama. Although it appears to be going slowly, nevertheless it is the first sign of a willingness to negotiate, to talk. Do you not worry that a case like this could undermine what could be progress of a political settlement in Tibet?

For China, Tibet does not matter. What matters is their face, and their relationship with foreign countries and the PR image of China, of what they call the peaceful, modern image of China. That is what matters. Tibet seems to be causing an embarrassment to the development of that clean image of modern, big, urban China. When international communities, like the European Union, the United States and Tibet supporters, take up the Tibetan issue with them, they feel embarrassed. To silence that kind of criticism they show in a very miniscule manner that they are talking to the representatives of the Dali Lama. But even then, they do not properly recognise the representatives and voice of the Dalai Lama.

Secondly, up to now they have always been saying it is a "dialogue process", so negotiation has not even started. They have always been treated as the other people, "overseas Chinese" and not as Tibetans. So long as they do not recognise Tibet as a problem they will continue to have this problem, they are just buying time so one day they will never have to talk or care about Tibet.

Q. Nevertheless the government in exile in Dhramasala has asked people while the talks continue not to embarrass the Chinese leadership with public demonstrations and protests. Do you think that was a wrong decision on the part of the government in exile? If it was the right decision, why are you not following it?

It is the effort of our government in exile, led by the Dalai Lama, to talk to China and to find a negotiated solution although they seem not to be going anywhere. It is a hope from their side to find a peaceful solution, and they need to find a conducive atmosphere, but I don't think, along with huge numbers of Tibetans, that this is going to work. We seem to be playing to the Chinese scheme of things. Presently when there is support from the outside, if we tone down the protest, it works to the favour of China. This is the time to really bring down China and cause them embarrassment and make them rethink on and seriously address the issue of Tibet.

Q. How do you rate your chances of success?

I'm very optimistic on this part. I've always been an activist and have always worked with non-violence as our basic human value, and the method of bringing justice to Tibet. Lawsuit is one way, and on the other side, we speak to people and protest. This is direct action and I am optimistic it will bring the result that we seek.

Uncontrolled traffic, Wayne Warren This collage of traffic lights in front of the Tibetan plateau with all three lights “on”, the red – Chinese dragon, the amber – Lhasa Express, and the green – Tibetan flag, represents an uncertain future with no clear direction.

All images are from the Lhasa Express exhibition, at the Sweet Tea House and Rossi & Rossi galleries, 21 July – 25 August 2006

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