By Kunchok Dolma Yaklha, Special Appointee for Human Rights, the Tibet Bureau, Geneva
As the third Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of People’s Republic of China at the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva concluded, the large group of Chinese delegation, headed by Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng, took center-stage with a blatant boastful attitude, and posed for perfect group photos with great big smiles.
The UPR is a unique mechanism of the HRC which assesses the human rights record of its Member States every four years. China’s first UPR review was in 2009 and the second one in 2013.
Truthfully, watching it all unfold in front of eyes brought a sudden dash of pessimism over my shoulders. I later shared this experience with a fellow Tibetan and how it made me question our ability to hold a powerful China accountable at the UN.
My friend replied, “The advocacy work the Tibet Bureau does is similar to that of mosquitoes. Mosquitoes may appear tiny and a mere nuisance, but their bites are harmful and cannot be ignored.”
“The advocacy work the Tibet Bureau does is similar to that of mosquitoes. Mosquitoes may appear tiny and be a nuisance, but their bites are harmful and cannot be ignored.” – A Tibetan living in Switzerland
With this metaphor in my mind, I assessed the Tibet Bureau in Geneva’s (Tibet Bureau) advocacy work at the UN and how our tiny, mosquito size group keeps the totalitarian regime on its toes.
In collaboration with many Tibet support groups, including the Tibetan Community in Switzerland & Liechtenstein, the Tibet Bureau made a joint submission to China’s UPR process. Our submission highlighted the deteriorating human rights violations inside Tibet and the systemic economic marginalization of Tibetans.
However, we later discovered that our submission was removed from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ official summary of stakeholders’ submission and from any consideration by UN Member States ahead of their recommendations to China.
The fact that Chinese authorities went to the extent of having the Tibet Bureau’s name and the information we submitted removed from official UN documents confirms our strength as the flame of truth. We are small, but we are strong because we have the truth. This was the first mosquito bite.
A day before the UPR, Chinese representatives held a grand photo exhibition, as well as two side events inside the UN building disseminating propaganda about Tibet and other regions in China. We held our own side event with a delegation from Central Tibetan Administration fact checking China’s claims.
As much as Chinese representatives would have preferred to comfortably sit in their seats as a symbolic assertion of their economic power at the UN, the presence of Tibetans in the same building forced them to react and respond. This was the second mosquito bite.
On the day of the UPR, Chinese representatives deployed its usual intimidation tactics. When our staff Kalden Tsomo was saving a few seats for our team members, a Chinese woman charged towards her screaming, “You can’t be saving all these seats!” Kalden, a petite woman standing only at 5 feet 2 inches, dressed in her traditional chuba and pangden asserted, “I am not new to this Council. I know how it works here. So, you go back to your own seat.” The Chinese woman quietly went back to her seat and did not dare come back. This was the third mosquito bite.
“I am not new to this Council. I know how it works here.So, you go back to your own seat.” – Tibet Bureau staff responding to a Chinese representative at the UN
Compared to the 2013 UPR cycle, in the 2018 cycle we may have lost Czech Republic, Iceland, and Poland, but we gained the support of four new countries: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, and Sweden. Also, from only three countries who mentioned Tibet in their advance questions in 2013, this time we had a total of seven countries that questioned China about Tibet. These countries were Austria, Belgium, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK and the US.
Further, some of the world’s most powerful nations continued their support for Tibet at the UN: Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, Switzerland, the UK and the US. For example, Switzerland called on China to “[R]espect all human rights of the Tibetan people…including the importance of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment which is vital for the enjoyment of a number of these rights.” This was the fourth mosquito bite.
Support for Tibet at China’s Universal Periodic Review in 2013 and 2018
China refuses to speak with the envoys of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to resolve the issue of Tibet, but the Tibet Bureau’s advocacy is essentially making China talk at the UN.
“China refuses to speak with the envoys of His Holiness the Dalai Lama… but the Tibet Bureau’s advocacy is actually making China talk at the UN.”
At the UPR session, China had no choice but to answer to questions about the violations of the fundamental rights of the Tibetan people, including freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and the right to preserve their culture and identity.
China’s problem was that nobody—except the developing nations dependent upon Beijing’s loans and investments—was actually listening to what it was saying because everyone knew it was a bunch of outrageous lies. This was the fifth mosquito bite.
Until China engages in a genuine dialogue with envoys of His Holiness, no amount of justification China provides will have any value or credibility in the eyes of the international community.
“Until China engages in a genuine dialogue with envoys of His Holiness, no amount of justification China provides will have any value or credibility.”
In order to add some legitimacy to its claims, this time China brought a “Tibetan representative” from the so-called Tibetan Autonomous Region to praise China’s achievements in the region at the UPR session. This was the sixth mosquito bite.
However, China’s only problem was that the “Tibetan representative” did not speak Tibetan, and instead spoke in Chinese.
Given the systemic eradication of the Tibetan language in Tibet, the US called on China to release Tashi Wangchuk who was sentenced to five years in prison after he spoke to the New York Times about the need for Tibetan language education.
A day after the UPR, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a press release claiming the review to be a success with over 120 countries who spoke “highly of China’s human rights report.”
However, what is notably missing from the press release is the fact that when the large group of Chinese delegation took center-stage to celebrate the completion of its human rights review, barely any of the 150 countries present in the room joined them. This was the seventh mosquito bite.
I cannot help but compare this to the time Sikyong Lobsang Sangay and a delegation of the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile appeared before the Canadian Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee. Following the hearing, all members of the Foreign Affair Committee enthusiastically rushed to get a group photo with the real Tibetan delegation. The two groups shared great camaraderie, laughter, and a relationship based on respect for universal principles of human rights.
When I left the UN building feeling blue after the UPR, I could hear protestors in the distant chanting “Free Tibet, China Out!”
I walked towards the voices to find a line of the magnificent Tibetan national flag waving in front of the symbolic Broken Chair. This was the eighth mosquito bite.
Number 8 is regarded as the luckiest number in Chinese culture. It stands for prosperity. May Tibet Bureau’s eight-mosquito bites bring great prosperity for China.
China may have money, but it does not have morals. China may have a military, but we have the “Mosquito Strategy”—with a non-violent mosquito that cannot be ignored.
Disclaimer: Views expressed here are that of the individual and does not necessarily reflect those of the Central Tibetan Administration.