Tibet awaits its day in court over genocide claims

Tibet awaits its day in court over genocide claims

Spain drops a judicial investigation into alleged genocide and human rights violations against a number of Chinese leaders in Tibet, writes BODEAN HEDWARDS.

Despite its reputation for pursuing international human rights violators, the Spanish National Court has dropped its investigation into claims of genocide in Tibet because of restrictions on the use of universal jurisdiction in Spain.

While Tibet is not the only nation to experience a violent occupation, the historical and current human rights abuses have largely remained at the periphery of international human rights rhetoric and neglected by international justice mechanisms.

Since the arrival of the People’s Liberation Army in 1959, the Tibetan plateau has been engulfed in oppressive policies aimed at ‘liberating’ the Tibetan people from serfdom and poverty. In reality, thousands of Tibetans were beaten and tortured, forced to denounce the Dalai Lama, and undergo ‘political re-education through labour’ while forced to work in squalid conditions, building the roads and railways that would bring Tibet into the new world.

In the decades following 1959, tens of thousands of Tibetans were subjected to what the Panchen Lama would later describe as unspeakable atrocities. Thousands of years of culture and religion destroyed, and an entire population—including the atrocities committed against them—were hidden from the outside world in the name of sovereignty.


By the 21st century, Tibetans and their cause would only intermittently reach international headlines. Then in 2008, the Tibetan unrest was at the forefront of the international media during the Beijing Olympics torch relay (picture), with pro-Tibetan activists around the world engaged in ‘fatal clashes’ with officials while calling for recognition of the human rights of their people.

In the same year, on the anniversary of the failed National Uprising of 1959, Tibetans took to the streets in the biggest national uprising since the initial occupation. Advocates on the outside were surprised by the uprising, with a former political prisoner stating, ’I did not expect Tibetans to be so brave, because I know what happens. I experienced severe treatment and torture for doing something like this.’

The Chinese reacted with an unprecedented crackdown. A Human Rights Watch report later detailed that ’abuses committed by security forces during and after protests, [included the] use of disproportionate force in breaking up protests, firing on unarmed protesters, conducting large-scale arbitrary arrests, brutalising detainees and torturing suspects in custody’.

In 2009, reports of a monk carrying a Tibetan flag and setting himself on fire in the Sichuan Province hit headlines around the world. This was to be the first of a string of self-immolations in the region, with the International Campaign for Tibet putting the figure at 131 since 2009. Advocate groups say that all those who self-immolated were calling for the same thing—freedom. In response, China increased restrictions across the region, arresting and jailing those associated with individuals who attempted to, or successfully self-immolated.

Despite the dark past, it would be wrong to say there has been no progress inside Tibet. Reporters and bloggers who have managed to spend time in Lhasa indicate there is some truth to Chinese claims of modernisation. One reporter stated

Any real progress is undermined by the consistent stream of reports about human rights abuses inside Tibet.

There’s some truth in what a Chinese tourist told me in Lhasa, ’We are raising standards of living in the region with our investment, and providing Tibetans with better lives.’ Tibetans now enjoy hospitals, government buildings, schools, paved roads, electric power, and censored-but-operable cell phones and Internet, none of which would be there without the Chinese. Compared to neighbouring Nepal, the Tibet I saw looked modern.

Unfortunately, any real progress is undermined by the consistent stream of reports about human rights abuses inside Tibet. Further, the inconsequential responses of world leaders mean that the potential for progress will continue to be destabilised by a growing unrest among Tibetans.

Information restricted

While information inside Tibet remains restricted to autobiographies of those who escaped, and advocate reports, evidence suggests that the situation is not improving. Human Rights Watch recently released a report demonstrating how land reforms are slowly destroying century-old lifestyles and traditions. Furthermore, the restrictions on freedom of movement, speech and religion and severe social and political oppression are leading to what many fear is the destruction of a once distinct and unique culture and population.

Despite what some consider clear evidence that Tibetans have been subjected to various human right abuses and atrocities, there is yet to be a successful international investigation in the conduct of the Chinese either during the initial occupation, or into the situation today. As the Tibetan government-in-exile launches the most concerted effort to date to secure basic freedoms and genuine autonomy for the Tibetan people, understanding the cause of their frustration seems warranted.

In 2005, the Madrid-based Committee to Support Tibet filed a ‘popular action’ in the Spanish Audiencia Nacional (National Court), alleging that a former Chinese prime minister, and five other military officials were responsible for genocide, crimes against humanity, torture and terrorism during the liberation of Tibet in the 1980s and 1990s and the subsequent displacement of over one million Tibetans. The case was dismissed, with the Constitutional Court ruling that there was no direct link between the crime and Spain.

Three weeks later, the decision was overturned on the premise that the crime of genocide is one on which the principle of universal jurisdiction can be exercised. Then, in October 2013 the Spanish National Court issued arrest warrants for Chinese officials in an investigation into the allegations.

Shortly after, the Chinese responded, stating:

I believe this incident concerns the sound development of bilateral relations, so we hope that the Spanish government can properly deal with this matter and tell right from wrong.

In June 2014, the Spanish High Court dropped the case. They contended that the court’s ability to prosecute the case was now limited, citing the newly introduced legislation that restricted the application of universal jurisdiction to cases involving only Spanish victims or offenders. Spain has denied this shift had anything to do with backhanded threats to trade relations with China.

Understandably, there are particular sensitivities attached to the term genocide. However, its application to incidents in Tibet—both historically and today—remains largely unexamined and legally undetermined. This begs the question: what is the point of universal jurisdiction if not to prosecute states engaged in human rights abuses, particularly crimes as serious as genocide?

The dismissal of the investigation is disappointing, particularly because the avenues to pursue an investigation into genocide in Tibet are severely limited. Given that China is not a party to the Rome Statute, it is highly unlikely that it will ever be heard in the International Criminal Court. Further, as China’s influence expands, it is also unlikely that another nation will attempt a similar investigation.

Despite calls from the United Nations to address the underlying causes of the unrest and self-immolations in Tibet, it is well documented that the causes and any possible solutions or approaches related to justice are politicalin nature. As a result, the actions of the Chinese would not necessarily fall within the scope of the Genocide Convention.

The benign condemnation of the Chinese by international leaders continues to undermine any efforts to seek justice for Tibetans. As Christine Bakker points out, if this case were to be pursued, it would set a global precedent to investigate and prosecute those involved in genocide and challenge the political viability of state sovereignty .

Main photo:
Free Tibet demonstration (Flickr).

Bodean Hedwards is doing her PhD at Monash University on the criminalisation of border crossings and control in the zone between the Chinese Tibetan Autonomous Region, Nepal and India.

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