DHARAMSHALA, India, 26 December 2013
Hopes for international solidarity behind Tibetan political goals recently met another setback when China was elected to an uncontested regional seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council. Although the importance of foreign financial support should not be discounted, concrete measures to apply pressure on China to resolve human rights violations in Tibet has been in short supply.
Unfortunately, as the world community continues to pursue normal diplomatic and trade relations with China, it is increasingly hard to imagine that the weak existing international pressures on China are going to become any stronger. Expectations otherwise may be doing the Tibetan cause a disservice by placing the faith and energy of Tibet supporters in a direction with very limited potential.
Why the United Nations offers no solution
The United Nations is not a democracy. Even if every member of the UN other than China unanimously agreed on a tough resolution demanding change in Tibet, it wouldn’t matter: China could still kill that resolution with a veto. Most real power in the UN rests with the five members of the Security Council — which includes China. Without agreement from all five Security Council members, the UN cannot pass resolutions or make other meaningful decisions, including the use of force. Appointment of the Secretary General is also subject to veto, providing the UN’s leader little incentive to invite Chinese opposition by raising Tibetan concerns.
There is an important role in the world for the UN, such as providing security for refugees within active conflict zones, but bringing freedom to Tibet is beyond its realistic abilities. It is a forum where the world can criticize China, and nothing more. Unable to impose serious consequences on China for its appalling behavior, the UN lacks the tools to meaningfully help Tibet even if it had the will.
Why individual foreign governments offer no solution
The government of any country is unlikely to act in a way other than in its own interest. In the democratic Western countries most able to help Tibet, the leaders are charged with representing their own citizens, and it is those citizens alone who hold the leaders accountable. Western powers are heavily invested in trade with China and need China’s cooperation on global problems, the pursuit of nuclear weapons by North Korea for example. However personally sympathetic to the suffering of Tibetans the leaders of Western powers may be, they have shown great reluctance to confront China with the threat of significant consequences over Tibet so far, and it is very improbable they ever will in the absence of clear benefits to their own countries for doing so.
The effect of Western policy has generally been to maintain the status quo on Tibet. It should be no surprise: The direct interest of Western powers in the Tibetan situation is to highlight human rights violations in Tibet as the basis of a moral argument to contain China’s expanding influence. Their advantage is in continuing to use the issue to isolate China in the world community, making a genuine solution to Tibet’s problems a low priority, if not no priority at all.
Why foreign individuals and NGOs offer no solution
As seen from India, the large number of people who travel long distances to visit Dharamshala would seem to indicate a massive population of enthusiastic supporters. On the ground in the West the view is quite different. Despite the considerable money and effort that has been directed at advocacy and raising awareness about Tibet, experience in America has shown that many people still don’t know anything about Tibet. Mention Tibet and the typical American is as apt to respond with a puzzled look as to have any notion of Tibetan history, culture or politics.
Many of the vocal Tibet supporters found in Dharamshala strongly identify with Tibetan Buddhism, but estimates put the total Buddhist population in America from all traditions at less than two percent of the total population. Generously assuming that all Buddhists would support Tibet and that only half of active Tibet supports are Buddhists, the base of active supporters would still fall well short of five percent of the population, not nearly enough to demand political action from their governments. For everybody else, “Free Tibet” is often seen as a new-agey cause tied up with Eastern spirituality, or something college students get into for awhile and then drift away from. Most Westerners are more concerned with issues like homelessness in their own area than with Tibet’s problems.
Again, financial support is important and well appreciated, but foreign sponsors should be seen as a temporary band-aid, not a long-term strategy. Sponsors, no matter how generous, can’t buy freedom, and protesters, no matter how loud, are hard to hear from Beijing. What outside friends of Tibet can offer is help, not a solution.
The Way Forward
If there is going to be a solution for Tibet, it will have to come from within the community. There is hope, there is a history of other causes that have brought radical change against seemingly impossible obstacles, like the anti-colonial movement in India, anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, and civil rights struggle in the United States. These movements took time, but in the end they won.
It is also important to think about a better future in terms of preparing the next generation to succeed in the world. Today’s children can have the opportunities their parents never did. Education and healthy families need to be priorities so that they can have happy and stable lives wherever they live. When we do achieve freedom, they will be the ones who lead Tibet forward.
About the author
Kunsang Dolma is the author of A Hundred Thousand White Stones: An Ordinary Tibetan's Extraordinary Journey, from Wisdom Publications. She maintains a website about Tibetan women's issues at Yimbe.net. She is now on Twitter as @mangradolma Evan Denno is a writer in India and contributor to Policu.com