Dispossessed: Land and Housing Rights in Tibet

For many years human rights monitors have reported on China’s denial of political and civil freedoms rather than focusing on economic issues. In return, China often defends its stance on civil and political issues by claiming that its citizens are more interested in economic security than in personal freedoms. With China’s ratification of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) in 2001, the time is ripe for a closer analysis of China’s record in relation to specific economic rights.

The Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD) has therefore prepared this Land and Housing Rights Report to present to two different forums. The first is the World Summit for Sustainable Development (WSSD), South Africa, September 2002; the second is the United Nations’ Committee for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which will assess China’s first state report regarding the ICESCR, due in June 2003.

Land rights, housing, and sustainable habitats are economic issues that are crucial not just to individuals’ personal rights, but also to the future of a country. A balance must be struck between affording individuals equitable access to quality land/housing, and ensuring that the settlements in which such housing is located, or the uses to which the land is put, are sustainable. This report, therefore, examines housing and land issues using a rights framework that embraces the right of a people to sustainable development.

In 1996, the PRC government made a public commitment to the full and progressive realisation of the right to adequate housing. In ratifying the ICESCR in 2001, China has made a legal commitment to recognise this right. Over the past decade, the PRC has also regularly made submissions to the United Nations’ Committee for Sustainable Development claiming compliance with sustainable development including the right to land. Despite this public face, there are serious violations of international law and principles currently occurring within Tibet.

In studying Tibet’s housing and land rights issues against the framework of both human rights and sustainable development, TCHRD hopes to contribute to the ongoing debate about the links between the two issues. At the time of writing, many human rights NGOs participating in the Preparatory Meetings for the WSSD were outraged at the exclusion of human rights discourse from the Summit platform. It is to be hoped that the WSSD in Johannesburg will correct the course of international policy development. The fact is no country can claim to be achieving sustainable development if it denies its people their fundamental political, civil, religious, economic, social, and cultural rights. Sustainability is meaningless if people are not involved in creating or taking part in its benefits.

It must be stressed that this Report is not a result of fieldwork research. Although China is increasingly permitting NGOs and international academics to conduct research in various regions of China, given TCHRD’s background in human rights advocacy, we face insurmountable difficulties entering Tibet to conduct comprehensive research on housing and land conditions. TCHRD very much hopes that in the near future academics and/or international NGOs are able to conduct grassroots research in both the “TAR” and the rest of ethnographic Tibet.

In the absence of this level of access, TCHRD has researched academic papers and Beijing’s White Papers for data on China’s policies in TIbet. TCHRD has also made use of information provided to the centre by Western travellers. However, our greatest resource is the testimonies of recently-exiled Tibetans whom we have interviewed in India and Nepal since our inception six years ago. TCHRD strongly believes in a people-centred approach to human rights issues and to sustainable development. Tibetan best know what is happening in their country and the information they provide is crucial to understanding the situation on the ground.

This report is titled “Dispossessed” because the key feature of land and housing in Tibet over the last fifty years is the dispossession by the Chinese government of Tibetan land and housing. Even recent reforms which purport to grant households greater tenure over land and housing actually have the effect of further alienating control ove rland resources from the people of Tibet.

Download the full report here.

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