Tibetan businessman turned language advocate, Tashi Wangchuk, became the topic of much discussion at the 41st regular session of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly of the Human Rights Council. Wangchuk became a language advocate after the last Tibetan language class in his region was shut down. Worried that Tibetan children would grow up unable to speak their mother tongue, he took it upon himself to provide these classes. His language preservation activities attracted the attention of the New York Times (NYT), which reached out to Wangchuk in 2015. Wangchuk seized this opportunity to speak out against the “systemic slaughter” of his language and culture. His comments were used in a short film and an article both published on the NYT website. Two months after speaking with the newspaper he was arrested, and in 2018 Wangchuk was charged with ‘inciting separatism’. He was sentenced to a minimum of five years imprisonment. In February this year, his lawyer was prevented from visiting him due to the sensitivity of the case.
A representative from the delegation of the Czech Republic urged the Chinese government to free all human rights defenders currently being detained, and specifically referenced the imprisonment of Tashi Wangchuk. The imprisonment of this individual exemplifies the complete disregard for accepted law by Beijing. Wangchuk’s approach to language advocacy was peaceful, non-political and conducted through official channels. His only fault was that he was following the Chinese constitution and not the will of President Xi Jinping
At the same Assembly, a similarly powerful statement was given by Vincent Metten, the EU Policy Director of the International Campaign for Tibet. In his statement, he urged all those present to not allow the “deeply troubling”, systemic, human rights violations against Tibetans by Chinese authorities to continue unscrutinised. The International Campaign for Tibet is the largest national Tibet support group in the world, providing advocacy for, and reporting on, the region for over thirty years regarding China’s ongoing persecution of the Tibetans, their culture and their lands.
Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and government representatives alike voiced their concerns at the Human Rights Council meeting over the ongoing, and apparently systematised, oppressions and violence being perpetuated in Tibet. Delegates speaking out included the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, and representatives to the European Union, France, and Sweden, as well as the Venerable Lobsang Dorjee, director of the Central Association of Panchen Lama. Their statements reflected the widely felt concerns over China’s evident suppression of religious groups and human rights defenders.
Over the course of the session, the assembled Member States repeatedly insisted that independent human rights experts be given unfettered access to all parts of China. It is hoped that the engagement of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, as well as special rapporteurs and independent experts, will provide the pressure needed to force the Chinese government into curtailing their intense suppression of the religion, beliefs and cultural rights of Tibetans.
The 2019 Human Rights Watch World Report described a situation in which Chinese authorities have “dramatically stepped up repression and systematic abuses against the 13 million Turkic Muslims, including Uyghurs and ethnic Kazakhs, in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region. Authorities have carried out mass arbitrary detention, torture, and mistreatment of some of them in various detention facilities, and increasingly imposed pervasive controls on daily life. New regulations in Tibet now criminalise even traditional forms of social action, including community mediation by religious figures.”
This same approach is also being attempted in Hong Kong, a region that was promised “a high degree of autonomy” under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, where moves are being made to restrict and undermine people’s rights to free speech and political participation. Allowing extradition of individuals to mainland China would be the first in a series of measures that could lead to further possible repression in both Hong Kong and Taiwan. China’s increasing use of mass surveillance systems, including biometrics such as DNA and voice samples, has allowed them to tighten their control over society. These surveillance measures are now being applied to the development of a nationwide reward and punishment system known as the “social credit system”, which is intended to prevent dissent. This project poses a significant threat to all those organisations concerned with continuing to advocate for the respect of human rights from within China.
Ironically, also present at the session were members of an “NGO” group, funded by Beijing, called the China Society for Human Rights Studies. This group has attended previous UN Council sessions and has even sponsored side events publicising the ways in which China has improved the state of human rights and its defence of minorities. As expected, this group disagreed with the claims being laid against the Chinese People’s Party and responded with seemingly prepared and obviously biased statements. The systemic oppression of the Tibetan people, as well as the ongoing discriminations being enacted against minority groups in China, such as Christians, Buddhists, and the Uyghur people, and the arbitrary detention, imprisonment, and forced disappearance of human rights defenders will continue if the European Union and the international community do not intercede. China, and Beijing, must be monitored and the ongoing suffering of people belonging to these groups must be stopped. If China is to continue to grow in its role as a major global power, it must be further encouraged to promote basic human rights and protect the ethnic minorities living within their borders.