Tibet: The Right to Self-Determination

Kasur Lodi G. Gyari

Special Envoy of His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Tibetan Government in Exile President

International Campaign for Tibet

Since its invasion and continued occupation of Tibet, China has denied the Tibetan people many basic rights recognized under international law. One such basic right is the right to self-determination. By forcibly occupying Tibet, China has prevented Tibetans from exercising control over their lives in many spheres, from the political and economic to the cultural and religious.

The accepted definition of the right to self-determination is contained in Article i common to the International Covenants of Human Rights: "All peoples have a right to self- determination; by virtue of that right they are free to determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development". Thus this right may best be viewed as entitling a people to choose its political allegiance, to influence the political order under which it lives, and to preserve its cultural, ethnic, historical or territorial identity.' The principle of self-determination of peoples has been accepted as part of international law by the community of nations. It is enshrined in Article i of the Charter of the United Nations, which states that one of the purposes of the United Nations is "to develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equality and self-determination of peoples".2 Article 55 of the Charter also speaks of international economic and social co- operation "with a view to the creation of conditions of stability and well-being which are necessary for peaceful and friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples."

The Tibetans are certainly a "people" to whom the right of self-determination applies. While there is no one clear definition of a "people", the Tibetans would dearly fall under any reasonable definition. The most accepted definition of a people in international law who possess the right to self-determination was prepared by the ECOSOC Group of Experts on the rights of peoples:

a.  "A group of individual human beings who enjoy some or all the following common features: (i) a common historical tradition, (ii) racial or ethnic identity; (iii) cultural homogeneity; (iv) linguistic unity; (v) religious or ideological affinity; (vi) territorial connection; (vii) common economic life.

b.  The group must be of a certain number who need not be large (e.g., the people of micro states) but must be more than mere association of individuals within a state. 

c.  The group as a whole must have the will to be identified as a people or the consciousness of being a people - allowing that groups or some members of such groups, though sharing the foregoing characteristics, may not have the will or consciousness.

d.  Possibly the group must have institutions or other means of expressing its common characteristics and will for identity."3

The Tibetan people satisfy each of these criteria and are a distinct people with the right to self-determination under international law. In fact, the People's Republic of China itself has in its constitution, legislation and practice, identified and treated the Tibetans as a separate and distinct people.4

A Country With It's Own Government and a Distinct Territory

Tibet is a land mass of 2.5 million square kilometers with a population of 6 million Tibetans. The Chinese not only illegally invaded and occupied independent Tibet, they also divided up the country. Most of Kham was annexed into the neighbouring Chinese provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan by the Chinese, while a part of Amdo was incorporated into the Chinese province of Gansu. A major portion of Amdo was renamed Qinghai and turned into a Chinese province. This has been an attempt to weaken the unity of the Tibetan people and to divide and rule - an endeavour that has not succeeded.

We hear time and time again from the Chinese government about their historical claim to Tibet. These claims are simply not true. Prior to the Chinese invasion, Tibet was a fully functioning independent state. In its 1959 and Ig6o reports on Tibet, the International Commission of jurists noted that at the time of China's invasion Tibet demonstrated all the necessary conditions of statehood. The i96o final report states, "In 195o there was a people and a territory, and a government which functioned in that territory, conducting its own domestic affairs free from any outside authority. Foreign relations of Tibet were conducted exclusively by the Government of Tibet and countries with whom Tibet had foreign relations are shown by official documents to have treated Tibet in practice as an independent state."5 Furthermore, in 1987 the research department of the German Bundestag examined the status of Tibet and confirmed, for its part, that Tibet was indeed an independent country at the time of the Chinese invasion.

A Case for Tibetan self-determination

China's human rights, environmental and development policies in Tibet are based on a colonialist structure long rejected by the international community. The UN Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples states, "The subjection of peoples to alien subjugation, domination and exploitation constitutes a denial of fundamental human rights, is contrary to the Charter of the United Nations, and is an impediment to the promotion of world peace and co-operation." The document then declares, "All peoples have the right to self-determination."6

The enjoyment of the right to self-determination is a prerequisite for the enjoyment of all other human rights. There cannot be respect for human rights in Tibet until the conflict over the political status of Tibet is resolved. Political opposition in Tibet focuses almost entirely on the perceived colonial nature of Chinese rule in Tibet.

Tibetans are entitled to exercise this right to self-determination because they are indisputably a people. They possess all the necessary objective, identifiable criteria of a distinct people, including a distinct language, religion, culture, traditions and customs, history, and territory. Tibetans also meet all other subjective criteria, such as shared preferences, values and common destiny. In 1961, the U.N. General Assembly recognized this right and passed a resolution calling for "the cessation of practices which deprive the Tibetan people of their fundamental human rights and freedoms, including their right to self- determination".7

During the deliberations on Tibet at the United Nations in 1959, Mr. Shanahan, the head of the New Zealand delegation to the U.N. stated, "it is, indeed, a matter of record that the Tibetan people have for centuries preserved their separate identity, their own institutions of government and their unique way of life within the borders of their own homeland. It would be difficult to conceive of circumstances in which any stronger case could be made for the exercise of self-determination."8 Prince Ali Khan, head of the Pakistani delegation, said, "The people of Pakistan have been greatly concerned over the unfortunate events in Tibet. The Tibetan people are our close neighbours. For hundreds of years they have pursued their traditional way of life. They have a right to choose the way in which they wish to live. Equally, it is the duty of the rest of the world to respect their choice."9

In fact, the Chinese are fully aware that given the opportunity to determine their own fate, the Tibetans would choose independence and a return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. But, they are being denied the opportunity to choose for themselves. In fact, the Tibetan people's inalienable right to self-determination is being completely violated.

The right to self-determination, as stated above, includes the right of a people to freely determine its political status and to freely pursue its economic, social and cultural development.'° Tibetans exercise no real control over the development of their own country. Tibet's natural resources are being depleted without benefiting Tibetans, and the country is being purposefully inundated by Chinese settlers in order to undermine any possible exercise of self-determination by Tibetans even in the future.

China has not only denied the Tibetans their right to self-determination, but has also instituted deliberate policies to destroy the Tibetans as a distinct people, with their own national and cultural heritage. In the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, of which China is a signatory, genocide is defined as "acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group as such, and [is] deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part"." In 1960, the International Commission of jurists found "that acts of genocide had been committed in Tibet in an attempt to destroy the Tibetans as a religious group".'2 Religion is an integral and inextricable aspect of Tibetan culture. Any attempt to destroy the religion should be regarded as an attempt to destroy the culture.

Population Transfer

Today there is a new and extremely threatening form of cultural genocide being pursued, an essential element of which is the government induced influx of Chinese settlers to Tibet and which is in violation of international law.13 Under international law, the transfer of civilians into occupied territory is prohibited by the IVth Geneva Convention of 1949- Moreover, the practice of population transfer constitutes a serious violation of human rights. It has been condemned by the U. N. Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities in August of 1991 and 1992, and has been described by experts as a crime against humanity.'14

While accurate figures do not exist, it is undeniable that Chinese outnumber Tibetans in cities and larger towns throughout Tibet. There are fewer Chinese in small villages or rural areas.

For three decades, from 1950 to 1980, the transfer of Chinese into Tibet was largely a centrally planned and co-ordinated strategy. The first wave of Chinese consisted of the invading armies, many of whom remained in Tibet by order of their commanders. In fact it is common to meet Chinese in Tibet today who are the sons and daughters of PLA soldiers who came to "liberate" Tibet, a task that involved the PLA for several decades, and to some extent is still going on. Later Chinese settlers came to Tibet as road builders, civilian and military workers, as well as cadres and administrators. An estimated i million Chinese prisoners and ex-prisoners were sent to, and are now settled in, the Tibetan province of Amdo, which has since become the Chinese province of Qinghai.

Today the movement of Chinese into Tibet is both centrally and locally induced by transfers, development, subsidies and incentives. A mobile work force has arisen who are willing and able to relocate wherever the state provides sufficient incentives and bonuses. Incentive packages typically include higher wages, lengthier vacations, better housing and medical care and preferential opportunities for the education of children. The Panchen Lama noted, "The expense of keeping one Chinese in Tibet is equal to that of four in China. Why should Tibet spend its money to feed them? ...Tibet has suffered greatly because of the policy of sending a large number of useless people. The Chinese population in Tibet started with a few thousand and today it has multiplied manifold."I5 By saying this publicly, the Panchen Lama put his very life in danger as he tried to work within the Chinese system to try to ameliorate the situation for Tibetans in Tibet. In fact, he died shortly after making this statement.

The extent and nature of government benefits for the Chinese in Tibet is relatively well documented. The government has openly admitted that it must give rewards to get Chinese to come to Tibet.I6 A 1991 fact finding mission of the International Campaign for Tibet confirmed reports that services have been provided to Chinese coming to Tibet ranging from housing, meals, laundry, long vacations and paid transport back to their hometown in order to keep the Chinese in Tibetan regions.I7

The 1995 US State Department Country Human Rights Report acknowledges the increasing demographic shift in favour of non-Tibetan people and says, "Most of these migrants profess to be temporary residents, but small businesses run by ethnic Han and Hui peoples (mostly restaurants and retail shops) are becoming more numerous in or near some Tibetan towns and cities." Government induced migration of Chinese into Tibetan areas is motivated by strategies aimed at reshaping the demographic composition of the region. Outnumbering and assimilating the Tibetans with loyal and patriotic Chinese renders the area politically stable - a necessary pre-condition for the government's development plans to succeed. Isolating Tibetan resistance movements or intimidating those groups by an overwhelming military and civilian presence effectively counters movements for independence or self-determination.

By manipulating the demographics of Tibet, the Chinese government is able to control the disputed territories and maintain policies to sinocize Tibet. The systematic assimilation of Tibet threatens not only the culture and way of life of the Tibetan people, but also the very existence of Tibetans as a people. This is a dear example of colonialist behaviour. If the present trends continue, Tibetans will, before long, be reduced to a small and insignificant minority in their own country in the same way as is happening to the Turkic people of Eastern Turkestan and the Mongolians of Inner Mongolia.

Some of the other grounds on which a compelling case for the Tibetan people's right to self-determination can be made are:

A. Alien Domination

In 1949 and 1950, the independent nation of Tibet was invaded by troops of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), who claimed to be "peacefully liberating" the Tibetan people. China's unprovoked aggression violated Tibet's national and territorial integrity, killed thousands of innocent people, and deposed a legitimate government, most certainly not "a peaceful liberation."

After unsuccessfully appealing to the United Nations, the Tibetan Government in 1951 signed, under duress, a "I7-Point Agreement" devised by the Chinese occupying forces. The autonomy guaranteed under the agreement was soon violated as China moved quickly to consolidate its control over Tibet.

Despite a wholly inadequate and unprepared military force, the Tibetans' defence of the Chinese invaders erupted into a massive revolt in Eastern Tibet in 1956, and spread throughout Tibet, reaching Lhasa three year later. According to China's own statistics, 87,ooo Tibetans were killed in Lhasa and the adjoining areas alone during the 16month period following the uprising in Lhasa in March 1959. His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama narrowly escaped the killing and was forced to flee over the border to India in order to continue his leadership of the Tibetan people. He was followed by over 100,000 Tibetan refugees who survived the treacherous journey into exile.

The use of force and the imposition of a new government by China deprived the right of the Tibetans to control their own fate and represents a violation of the principle of self- determination. The continued strong opposition of the Tibetan population to Chinese demonstrates Tibet's domination by a foreign power. International law recognizes a right to self-determination for those under alien domination.

The international response to these events was muted by world events, geopolitical realities and Tibet's own isolationism. Although the international community did not actively become involved in Tibet, they recognized the Tibetan people's right to self-determination. In 1959, 1961 and 1965, the United Nations General Assembly passed three resolutions that strongly condemned China for its actions in Tibet and a number of governments reiterated their view of Tibetan independence during the debates.

B. Destruction of Tibet's Distinct Religious and Cultural Identity

The Tibetans who remained in Tibet following the 1959 uprising have since endured the darkest period in Tibet's 2000-year history. Following the first of two fact-finding delegations to Tibet, the Tibetan Government in Exile issued a report documenting the deaths of over 1.2 million Tibetans who died as a direct result of China's occupation: victims of war, famine, internment, execution, torture and suicide. Over 6,ooo monasteries, including temples and historic buildings, the primary institutions of Tibetan culture, were dismantled and destroyed. Many of Tibet's treasures, including ancient and irreplaceable religious items, were subsequently sent off to China.

Beginning in 1959 and lasting through the end of China's Cultural Revolution in 1976, the Chinese occupation forces conducted a well-organized effort to systematically destroy outward manifestations of Tibet's distinct religious and cultural institutions. Although they were extremely effective in destroying the monasteries and artifacts, they could not quell the Tibetan spirit, nor could they put an end to the thriving Tibetan culture in exile. Through it all, the Tibetans continued to follow their exiled leader, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who has steadfastly advocated peaceful resistance based on principles of non-violence.

China's bloody response to demonstrations in Lhasa in 1987 and 1988, against the Chinese occupation and the declaration of martial law in Tibet in 1989 increased international awareness of the Tibetans' non-violent struggle. His Holiness the Dalai Lama was awarded the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize for his commitment to non-violence in his work to liberate Tibet, helping to raise awareness of the Tibetan cause. In August 1991, the UN Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities passed the first United Nations resolution on Tibet in 26 years, expressing its concern "at the continuing reports of violations of fundamental human rights and freedoms which threaten the distinct cultural, religious and national identity of the Tibetan people."I8  Human Rights Watch, in a recent report, asked why it was that in Tibet, "a country whose population accounts for only around 0.2 percent of the total population of China, there are currently more known political and religious prisoners reported to be in jail than in the rest of the country combined."19  Amnesty International, in its 1995 report on Tibet states, "Repression of political dissent in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) of the People's Republic of China, already endemic for many years, increased further during 1993 and 1994. New forms of repression were introduced, targeted primarily against people actively promoting the independence of Tibet. Hundreds of political prisoners, the overwhelming majority of them prisoners of conscience, were held"."'

"The government strictly enforces limits on the number of monks in major monasteries, and in March acknowledged publicly for the first time that these limits exist"." Of all the intrusions by China's atheist rulers into religious matters in Tibet perhaps the most ironic is the government's oversight of the search for, and recognition of the 11th Panchen Lama. In a blatant example of the total violation of the Tibetan people's freedom to religion, the communist government rejected the true 11th Panchen Lama endorsed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people and announced a candidate of their own. The six-year-old Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the 11th Panchen Lama and his family are under house-arrest somewhere in Beijing.

C. The Tibetan Government in Exile

The Tibetan Government in Exile is the continuation of the legitimate and recognised government of Tibet. It is the institution that expresses the Tibetan people's "common characteristics and will for identity. "22 When His Holiness left Tibet in 1959, the legitimate Tibetan government left with him. It is still the only legitimate government of Tibet and representatives of the Tibetan people. To fulfill the aspirations of the Tibetan people, this government must return to a free Tibet. The government is currently making efforts to democratize while in exile and incorporate what is has learned from democracies around the world into a new system for an independent Tibet. Since 1990, the cabinet of the Tibetan Government in Exile has been elected by the Tibetan Parliament in Exile. This reflects a major change from the earlier system where the cabinet members were appointed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. In less than 1o days, Tibetans throughout the world will be going to the polls to elect members of the XIIth Assembly of Tibetan People's Deputies, the parliament in exile. This right is not enjoyed by the Tibetan people inside Tibet. Tibet today is run by officials who are hand- picked by the communist party. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has called for any decisions that are made concerning the future of Tibet to be decided by the Tibetan people. Furthermore, he has said that a new government in Tibet should incorporate Tibetans who have lived under Chinese control and who have suffered for their political and religious beliefs, Tibetan officials working in the Chinese bureaucracy, and those Tibetans who have made a contribution in exile over the last 46 years.

The Tibetans, lead by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, have worked tirelessly to find a peaceful solution to end the Chinese occupation of Tibet. His Holiness has consistently offered new plans to the Chinese government for discussion, only to have them rejected. On September 21, 1987, His Holiness presented the "Five Point Peace Plan" before members of the U.S. Congress, calling for the restoration of Tibet as a zone of nonviolence, or "Ahimsa", and the commencement of earnest negotiations on the future status of Tibet.

His Holiness elaborated on this plan in 1988 during a speech to members of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France. In what is referred to as the "Strasbourg Proposal", it was proposed that all the Tibetan people be reunited in one self-governing administrative unit with responsibility of all affairs affecting Tibet and the Tibetan people. Under this plan, China would remain responsible for Tibet's foreign affairs. Despite these major concessions, which many Tibetans criticized as a "sell-out", the Chinese leadership failed to respond positively to these overtures.


The international community should embrace a broader and less alarmist view of self- determination. The exercise of self-determination need not result in the outcome feared by some: independent statehood for every single ethnic group. Rather, the exercise of self- determination can lead to a number of outcomes, ranging from minority-rights protection, to cultural or political autonomy, to independent statehood. A plebiscite or elections among the Tibetan people inside Tibet today will certainly show that the Tibetan people would support an exercise of self-determination. However, the situation in Tibet does not permit the holding of such an exercise. In the absence of elections or a plebiscite, the international community must look at other forms of expression to determine the will of the Tibetan people. The enormous support for His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Tibet and for his efforts "to resolve the issue of Tibet in a spirit of reconciliation, compromise and understanding" is such an expression.23

To speak today on the rights of the Tibetans to self-determination is of particular significance. According to the UN Declaration on Friendly Relations, a state can invoke the principle of territorial integrity against a claim for self-determination only when that country has a government truly representing the whole population.

Recently, Chinese authorities decided to abolish the elected legislative body of Hong Kong as soon as Hong Kong reverts to Chinese sovereignty. Before that, we all witnessed the extremely aggressive and militaristic posture China adopted to try to thwart the democratic elections in Taiwan. Fortunately, China's rattling of sabres across and in the Taiwan Straits had the opposite effect than that anticipated by Beijing. Proponents of "re-unification" lost badly, and the two principal parities, the KMT and the DPP, both of whom work for greater international recognition of Taiwan's separate status, came out on top.

I mention this to illustrate the extent to which China fears and opposes democracy, even in territories outside its present borders. Little surprise, therefore, that inside China, no form of democracy is allowed. And the government in Beijing cannot, consequently, claim to be a government representative of the whole people - not even the whole Chinese people, let alone of the Tibetans, Uyghurs, or the Mongolians.


1 Morton H. Halperin & David Scheffer, Self-Determination in the New World Order, 1992 

2 Charter, Article 1, Paragraph 2.

3 United Nations Economic and Social Council, International Meeting of Experts on Further Study of the Concept of the Rights of Peoples: Final Report and Recommendations, 1990

4 For more on Tibet and self-determination, see, Tibet: The Position in International Law, 1993 

5 International Commission of Jurist, Report on Tibet and the People's Republic of China, 1960 

6 The U.N. Declaration on Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples 

7 United Nations General Assembly, Resolution 1723 (XVI), New York, 1961

8 Bureau of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Tibet in the United Nations ig5o-196, p.61 

9 ibid, p 119 

10 The U.N. Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples 

11 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide 

12 International Commission on jurists, Report on Tibet and the People's Republic of China, 1960

13 International Campaign for Tibet, The Long March, September 1991 

14 UNPO Conference Report No. 2, Human Rights Dimensions of Population Transfer, Jan. 1992

15 Panchen Lama's Address to the TAR Standing Committee Meeting of the National People's Congress held in Peking on 28 March, 1987 

16 Liang Ming, Tibet's Population: 1 Million in 40 Years, Beijing Review, April 22-28, 1991 

17 International Campaign, The Long March, September, 1991, p.48

18 UN Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, Resolution 119/10, 23 August 1991

19 Human Rights Watch, Detained in China and Tibet, February 1994, p. xxxvi 

20 Amnesty International, People's Republic of China, Persistent Human Rights Violations in Tibet, May 1995

21 1995 U.S. State Department Country Human Rights Report 

22 One of the criteria for the definition of the concept of "peoples" in the report published by the UNESCO's International Meeting of Experts on Further Study of the Concept of the Rights of Peoples: Final Report and Recommendations, 1990

23 Statement of H. H. the Dalai Lama on the occasion of 37th Anniversary of the Tibetan National Uprising, March 10, 1996

[From "THE QUESTION OF SELF-DETERMINATION: THE CASES OF EAST TIMOR, TIBET AND WESTERN SAHARA" http://www.unpo.org/downloads/Selfdetermination%20Conference1996.pdf]