Écritique No. 2

© 1997 Canonymous Press

Self-Determination in Tibet:

The Politics of Remedies

by Daniel Smith

Part I

Part II



III. Tibet's Right to Self-Determination and the Politics of Remedies

The groundwork upon which Tibet's claim to the right of self-determination rests has been laid in Parts I and II. Tibet's specific legal claim to self-determination can now be clearly and succinctly argued, employing the concept of self-determination as it has evolved in conjunction with the contextual basis of Tibet's claim. The politics of remedies will be examined and a novel remedy for the paradigmatic case of genocide will be articulated.

Tibet asserts a claim to self-determination. The right to self-determination is a right devolving upon peoples. That the Tibetans are a people within the purview of the right to self-determination is not in dispute. [85] They possess every conceivable attribute of a people. The Tibetans are a cohesive group that has a common religion, common language, common territory, common culture, and common society. The Tibetans are a self-identifying group--a people. What is not communal is a history that has been distorted by external aggression.

All claims to self-determination are intensely oppositional, and in Tibet's case, the claim is against the People's Republic of China. The right of self-determination, however, admits of manifold remedies. Fundamentally, self-determination is autonomy for a people, but this can be manifested in any number of ways. At one end of the spectrum, self-determination means a certain measure of autonomy (whether cultural, political, economic, or otherwise) within a dominant state; at the other end of the spectrum, self-determination means autonomy without a dominant state--namely, complete sovereignty or independence. This continuum hence involves a critical disjunction. States--for reasons of self-preservation--are not ideologically predisposed to permit internal entities to secede. It is therefore not surprising that China opposes Tibet's claim to self-determination, which is a claim to independence, or secession.

Tibet's claim proceeds on several grounds. In the first instance, Tibet argues that it enjoyed at least de facto independence from 1912, when it freed itself from Manchu domination, until 1950, when it was overrun by the PLA. This is underscored by its treaty with Mongolia and its recognition by Britain in the Simla Convention. Moreover, during this period Tibet conducted its internal and external affairs completely independently, with Chinese presence within the country ranging from non-existent to minimal. Secondly, Tibet claims that the Chinese invasion in 1950 was an unjustifiable act of unmitigated aggression contrary to the norms of customary and conventional international law. Thirdly, Tibet claims that the Seventeen-Point Agreement was void ab initio as it was signed under duress and without authorization from the Tibetan government.

Tibet's first point is absolutely essential in establishing a territorial claim against the PRC. If its prior territorial claim is valid, and if China's subsequent usurpation is illegal under international law, then Tibet is entitled to reassert its sovereignty over its territory as an independent state. China's counterclaim is that it peacefully liberated Tibet, thereby forging a reunification of historically bound entities. It claims further that Tibet is a coequal nationality functioning fully autonomously within the PRC. [86] China's claim, however, is belied not only by evidence already adduced, but by its own admission. In the "Report on the Draft of the Revised Constitution of the PRC," delivered to the Fifth National People's Congress on November 26, 1982 it was stated:

It is a basic principle followed by the Communist Party of China and the state to work for the equality, unity and common prosperity of all our nationalities. We have scored tremendous success in this respect in the thirty and more years since the founding of the People's Republic. But we also committed "Left" mistakes during this period, especially during the Cultural Revolution, when the policies of the Party and the state on nationalities affairs were distorted and violated, and many cadres and ordinary folk of minority nationalities were made to suffer. This is a serious lesson. In revising the Constitution this time, we have paid full attention to summing up the historical experience in this respect and have drawn on the important results of setting things to right in our work among the minority nationalities in recent years.

The report continues:

Combating big-nation chauvinism chiefly means combating Han chauvinism--this is determined by the fact that the Han nationality makes up the overwhelming majority of China's population and exerts the greatest influence on the political, cultural, and economical life of the country. Comrades of Han nationality should show a high degree of political consciousness and always be mindful of guarding against and overcoming Han chauvinism. Like combating big-nation chauvinism, combating local national chauvinism is also necessary to guarantee unity among all our nationalities. However, the mistake of grieveously broadening the scope of struggle in this regard was committed in the past: first, many comrades who had not committed mistakes of local chauvinism were wrongly denounced; secondly, ideological mistakes were wrongly dealt with as contradictions between ourselves and the enemy. [87]

The candor of this document is remarkable, but such expressions of contrition do nothing to alter the substance of prior legal claims.

To recapitulate, it has been argued that the Tibetans as a people have a right to self-determination. Moreover, because the Tibetans have a valid territorial claim, their right to self-determination should entail a right to independence encompassing a reassertion of sovereignty over territory misappropriated by the PRC. To ensure that independence is indeed the will of the people and to provide a mechanism for the enactment of their right to self-determination, an internationally supervised plebiscite should be held as called for by the Dalai Lama. The likelihood of such a plebiscite taking place in the near future, however, is miniscule. The greater reality is that an equitable remedy will not be forthcoming until it is deemed politically expedient.

It has already been observed that Tibet has been subject to the vicissitudes of international Realpolitik. Tibet's small population, pacifistic demeanor, and isolated geography are all factors contributing to its relative obscurity in the international community. Throughout much of its history, and certainly in the modern era, Tibet has served as a political buffer zone for larger and more powerful states. The Manchus, the United States, Britain, India, Russia, and Nepal--not to mention the Chinese--have all tailored their relations with Tibet to meet strategic interests. This, it might be said, is only what is to be expected. On one level, this is indeed so. But on another level, that of concern for universal human rights and self-determination, power politics is inadequate--morally inadequate. To help overcome this deficiency, it is proposed that whenever it is determined that genocide has been perpetrated against a people, there should be a concomitant right to secession exercisable at its option. The reasoning is simple: no aggressor committing genocide against a people can be entrusted with that people's welfare into the future. Such an aggressor ceases to possess any credibility in dealing with an oppressed people. If a people oppressed by genocide were not guaranteed the right to secede, this would be tantamount to rewarding the oppressor to the very extent it had succeeded in committing genocide--a morally perverse and illogical result. [88] Genocide, the worst of transgressions in international law, must be accorded a remedy, and that remedy should be the fullest expression of self-determination--complete autonomy as manifested in independence. Invoking such a right in the case of the Tibetans, who have been documented as being the victims of genocide and other human rights violations, would make their claim to independence absolutely compelling, legally as well as morally.

When this day comes, Yangchen Dolker--and her compatriots--will then be able to write "Here I am well and happy by the grace of His Holiness the Dalai Lama" not from exile, but from Tibet.

I. The Concept of Self-Determination in International Law

II. The Contextual Basis of Tibet's Claim to Self-Determination

Appendix: U.N. Resolutions on Tibet


Écritique is published by Canonymous Press

ISSN 1061-1479

© 1997 Canonymous Press