Harsh words for China at UN

President Xi Jinping at the UN in 2015 (source: un_photo Flickr)
President Xi Jinping at the UN in 2015 (source: un_photo Flickr)

18th March 2016

Follows failed attempt to scupper Dalai Lama talk

On 10 March (Tibetan Uprising Day), a US government representative read out a statement to the United Nations condeming China's "deteriorating" human rights record on behalf of twelve countries. The statement was made to the Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva - an intergovernmental body tasked with promoting human rights. Members of the HRC are elected and China is currently a member.

A joint statement of this kind is very unusual at the HRC, and was triggered by increasing suppression of freedom of expression in China. Following a similar statement of concern by a high UN human rights offical in February, it stated:

We are concerned about China’s deteriorating human rights record, notably the arrests and ongoing detention of rights activists, civil society leaders, and lawyers.  In many cases, these individuals have not been granted access to legal counsel or allowed visits by family members.  These actions are in contravention of China’s own laws and international commitments.

The Chinese government has been increasingly reliant on arrests, censorship and bullying to silence its Chinese critics, who have traditionally been allowed greater freedom to express criticism than Tibetans. President Xi jinping is widely perceived to be more authoritarian than any Chinese leader for a generation. The statement was backed by the governments of the USA, Australia, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the UK. Their willingness to express their concerns at the UN so frankly is a sign of how deeply the international community is concerned about his approach to human rights.

Tough in China, tougher in Tibet

The statement did not refer to Tibet, which may partly be because the measures it refers to have been routine in Tibet for many years. Tibetans have seen increasing levels of surveillance, control and censorship since Xi came to power but the difference between the human rights situation now and the situation before Xi came to power in 2012 is far less marked than in China.

For Tibetans, any criticism of China's government is likely to see them convicted of "separatism", a crime under the Chinese constitution which carries severe penalties, up to and including the death sentence.

China fails to censor Dalai Lama at the UN

Under Xi, there has been renewed emphasis on control over religion in Tibet and a steady stream of rhetoric condemning the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader.

Two days before the statement was made, China contacted diplomats and officials at the UN in Geneva to urge them not to attend an event for Nobel Peace Prize laureates at which the Dalai Lama was due to appear. Reuters news agency reported that a letter sent by the Chinese delegation said:

Inviting the 14th Dalai Lama to the aforementioned event violates the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China, in contravention of the purposes and principles of the U.N. Charter. China resolutely opposes the 14th Dalai Lama's separatist activities in whatever capacity and in whatever name in any country, organisation or event.

The event went ahead and was well attended.

More action needed on Tibet

While the statement put a welcome focus on China's human rights record, governments have been less willing to talk tough on Tibet. While many express concern, none support Tibetans' right to determine their own future, and some are unwilling to raise Tibet in public.