Today, 10 December, is International Human Rights Day marking the adoption of Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), a set of principles that articulated for the first time the equal and inalienable entitlement of every human being to basic rights and fundamental freedoms and is considered the foundational document of international human rights legal system. The UDHR was drafted by representatives of various legal and cultural backgrounds including Chinese diplomat and philosopher Dr. Peng-chun Chang, who was also the vice-chair of the original UN Commission on Human Rights.
To celebrate and reaffirm our commitment to this landmark document, the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD) joins the United Nations as it kicks off a year-long campaign to mark the 70th anniversary of the UDHR. This historic document, adopted by the UN General Assembly on 10 December 1948, guarantees for all, at all times, and in all places the economic, social, political, cultural and civil rights that are universal, inalienable, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated.
The UDHR assumes an important place in the history of the Tibetan freedom struggle. In 1988, 40 years after the adoption of the UDHR, the Chinese government for the first time publicly recognised the existence of Human Rights Day. In the late 1980s, Tibet was undergoing turbulent times, which, in many respects, are still ongoing. After suffering decades of barbaric oppression marked by the dark years of Cultural Revolution, Tibetans took out to the streets of the Tibetan capital Lhasa to condemn Chinese rule and demand human rights and the right to self-determination. About two hundred demonstrations took place in Lhasa between September 1987 and March 1989. Among those imprisoned for carrying out peaceful demonstrations was a group of 10 monks from Drepung Monastery. They had been detained in September 1987 and released in January 1988 following intense pressure from the international community. Soon after their release, the monks, known as the “Group of Ten” and led by the exceptionally brave Ngawang Phulchung, set about printing and distributing a Tibetan translation of the UDHR and organising a large-scale demonstration on 10 December 1988 to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the UDHR.
At a mass public gathering in Lhasa on 30 November 1989, the “Group of Ten” was convicted for producing “reactionary literature” and “venomously slandering [China’s] socialist system characterized by the people’s democratic dictatorship.” Among the “reactionary literature” was the complete Tibetan translation of the UDHR that the monks had printed using carved wooden blocks. Ngawang Phulchung and Jampel Jangchub each received 19 years while Ngawang Woeser and Ngawang Gyaltsen each received 17 years. Jampel Lobsang was sentenced to 10 years and Ngawang Rinzin to 9 years. Jampel Monlam, Ngawang Kunga, and Jampel Tsering each received 5 years. Jampel Khedrub, sentenced to 19 years, died of torture injuries in July 1996. The severity of the sentences and the intense ideological denunciation of their ‘crimes’ indicate how seriously the Chinese government perceived the threats posed by the ideas of the Tibetan monks.
Today we recognise and honour the valuable contribution and sacrifice made by the “Group of Ten” and the other known and unknown Tibetans for the cause of freedom, human rights and self-determination in Tibet. To commemorate the 29th anniversary of the printing and distribution of the Tibetan UDHR, TCHRD will organise a public awareness campaign on UDHR that will involve activities aimed at educating and advocating for the promotion and protection of human rights in Tibet with special focus on human rights defenders and prisoners of conscience. In a video released today to commemorate the Tibetan monks’ contribution to promoting the UDHR, Tibetans from all ages, occupation and backgrounds are seen reading one of the 30 articles of the Declaration in Tibetan.
Almost 30 years after the criminalisation of UDHR in Tibet, Tibetans are still subjected to systematic political repression, crimes against humanity and other human rights abuses. All the while, the Chinese government has embarked on a carefully-planned strategy to manipulate the international human rights system and deceive the international community with token and specious gestures of signing or ratifying core international human rights treaties, serving as a member on the Human Rights Council and engaging with the UN human rights mechanisms. The Chinese government views human rights as dangerous ideas. Chinese government’s understanding is that human rights are not entitled but bestowed by the government. This skewed perception of human rights leads the Chinese party-state to claim exceptions from universally accepted human rights. This exception is claimed by adding “Chinese characteristics” to universally accepted values. Letting China promote its brand of “human rights with Chinese characteristics” will prove catastrophic for the cause of human rights and rule of law everywhere.
The world can no longer turn a blind eye to the egregious repression taking place in Tibet. Last month, a 63-year-old monk named Tenga became the 151st known Tibetan to die of self-immolation protest in Tibet. Tibet is now ranked worst of the worst for freedom and human rights in independent global surveys. Basic human rights and fundamental freedoms are routinely denied and violated, with no avenues to seek redress. Tibet is turned into a giant open prison due to mass surveillance, Maoist style propaganda campaigns, and government reprisals against human rights defenders and other individuals exercising human rights.
TCHRD urges the international community to make the Chinese government accountable for human rights violations and abuses in Tibet and prioritise human rights principles in its bilateral relations with the Chinese government. The Chinese authoritarian juggernaut is now threatening the liberal values of freedom, democracy and human rights everywhere, not just in Tibet. The international community needs to stand up for these values and particularly for oppressed and marginalised peoples such as Tibetans who have waged a prolonged, non-violent struggle to regain their political agency and preserve their national and cultural identity.