Cultural Genocide in Tibet

Last May Penpa Tsering, the leader of the Central Tibetan Administration, warned the world that Tibet is running out of time. He spoke of an “urgent threat” of cultural genocide; soon the culture will be destroyed, and it wouldn’t make “sense to fight for anything.” Rather than cultural genocide, the Chinese government speaks of a ‘sinicization of Tibet,’ an effort to incorporate Tibet into the People’s Republic of China.

This ‘sinicization’ happens through a wide range of political, religious, social, cultural and economic reforms, threatening the autonomy and lifestyles of many Tibetans. The Chinese constitution holds that “All nationalities have the freedom to use and develop their own spoken and written languages, and to preserve or reform their own folkways and customs.” The reality, however, has proven to be quite different: Tashi Wanchuk, a Tibetan businessman, speaks of a “systematic slaughter of our culture.” The incorporation of Tibet into the People’s Republic of China is called the ‘Peaceful Liberation of Tibet’ in China. Conversely, the Dalai Lama speaks of colonisation. The government, portraying itself as a benefactor of the multitude of minorities in China, is harsh on those less willing to assimilate, amongst whom the Uyghurs and Tibetans. Schooling and religion are amongst the cultural elements imposed upon by China. For example, China has now declared they will elect the new Dalai Lama, contrary to many centuries of important Tibetan traditions. Schools, too, are increasingly under direct control of the Chinese government. The longstanding tradition of going to school in monasteries is now forbidden, as is partaking in any religious activity in schools. Furthermore, it is now forbidden to speak or teach Tibetic in schools. If one is caught doing so, the punishments include loss of government welfare and subsidies. The characteristic and deeply meaningful prayer flags were destroyed under a ‘behavioural reform program’ starting in June 2020.

These are but some examples of the systematic suppression of Tibetan culture, with the aim of assimilating the “Five Races Under One Union,” one of the foundations China was founded on in 1911. Change from within is complicated by the Chinese government. As of October 2019 Tibetans in government positions are forced to disavow any allegiance to the Dalai Lama, and to support all and any ethnic policies. These are a few of the policies put in place with the clear aim of forcefully assimilating, and where possible diminishing Tibetan culture, which lies encrypted in its language, religion, education and public displays.

The statutory basis of the crime of genocide was established in the 1948 UN Genocide Convention, and can be found in Article 6 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and other tribunal Statutes as well. Genocide means the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religous group. Important to remember is that the destruction must be material, thus physical or biological, and that no genocide against other groups than the four explicitly stated can be committed. During drafting of the Genocide Convention in 1948, there was a strong support to include cultural genocide, surprisingly with China in favour. Nonetheless, due to a lack of political will from western countries – especially the Americas – cultural genocide was eventually not adopted.

Even though a collective identity can be destroyed, a cultural group can be kept alive during this process. While needed in order to punish acts of genocide, cultural genocide does not have a connection with physical destruction. Consequently, the systematic annihilation of Tibet’s cultural identity does not fall within the periphery of the definition of genocide. Besides established international law, China might be legally responsible under international customary law. To elaborate, international customs are state practices – what states actually do – that arise from a sense of legal obligation by these states: the belief that what is done is required by law. However, at this moment cultural genocide is not found in customary law. Further possibilities to hold China liable might be found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which entails the right of cultural life. Since this however is a declaration, no legal obligations to implement exist. Another framework that arises is the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), making it possible to hold states liable for the violation of inter alia, the violation of the right to freedom of religion, the violation of linguistic rights and naturally the violation of the right to enjoy culture. Nonetheless, since China only signed but not ratified the Covenant, it cannot be bound by it.

Tibetan culture is under great pressure of destruction. Even though international law and conventions fail to legally bound China for acts committed against Tibetans, it should nevertheless not undertake any acts that contravene the purpose of the signed ICCPR. In addition to the attention that is paid to the Uyghurs, it is important that attention is also paid to this sad reality.

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