by Dermod Travis
If history is like beauty and its interpretation lies in the eye of the beholder, Lysiane Gagnon’s recent series on China and Tibet is a living testament to the theory.
Madame Gagnon relies simultaneously on three schools of thought: a reliance on historians who contend that Tibet was effectively a Chinese protectorate from 1720 through its ‘liberation’ by the Chinese military, the ‘be happy’ philosophy to oppression because things could be a lot worse for Tibetans, and besides during the Cultural Revolution, Tibetans were hardly singled out by Mao.
While there are many schools of thought as to Tibet’s historical status, Canada’s position at the time of the military occupation was categorical. In 1950, Canada’s Department of External Affairs sought a legal opinion as to Tibet’s international status. It concluded that: “Chinese suzerainty, perhaps existent, though ill-defined, before 1911, appears since then, on the basis of facts available to us, to have been a mere fiction. In fact, it appears that during the past 40 years Tibet has controlled its own internal and external affairs. Viewing the situation thus, the question is should Canada consider Tibet to be an independent state, a vassal of China, or an integral portion of China. It is submitted that the Chinese claim to sovereignty over Tibet is not well founded…I am of the opinion that Tibet is, from the point of view of international law, qualified for recognition as an independent state.”
Undoubtedly, some historians will beg to differ and certain political observers will prefer to rely upon these differing conclusions to support their personal argument. This is one of the freedoms that journalists take for granted in Canada that is certainly not shared by Madame Gagnon’s counterparts in China.
But while some may obsess over historical nuances, in doing so they easily lose sight of the core issue and its future resolution. The crisis gripping Tibet is real, profound, and it is in the here and now. It reflects fifty years of failed Chinese policies.
Over the past weeks, there have been those, including Madame Gagnon, who contend that the current uprising within Tibet and worldwide protests only serve to humiliate China. But the appeal for democratic freedom, justice and human rights is a pursuit that must never hide from the possible hurt feelings of those who would deny their citizens basic human rights.
This point was not lost on either the International Olympic Committee or on Beijing when the city was awarded the 2008 Olympic Games.
IOC member and Montréal lawyer Dick Pound recently noted that “the Chinese were aware of it (the risk of protests). Believe me, they’re not unaware of the issue and the public perception of it…They (said) look we know we have these issues of human rights and other things. We think that having the Games and having the scrutiny that will come with the Games and having the explosion of people from all over the world and media from all over the world will help us make progress faster than we would if we remained closed.”
And scrutiny the Chinese government has experienced. Whether it’s the uprising in Tibet, the treatment of Falun Gong members, China’s role in Darfur, their recent aborted arms shipment to Zimbabwe, or their treatment of North Korean refugees, China’s domestic and foreign policies have come under scrutiny as never before. And rightly so.
But as Mr. Pound noted, such a possibility was envisioned when Beijing was awarded the 2008 Games. Indeed, according to Mr. Pound, it was welcomed by Chinese authorities. And it is a bit rich to complain after the fact.
Democracies such as Canada can not pick and choose our human rights battles. We can not afford a double standard when it comes to freedom. As Clifford Lincoln noted in 1989 in Québec’s National Assembly, “rights are rights are rights”. If we are to have any credibility in criticizing one country, we can never shy away from criticism of comparable acts perpetrated by another country. Doing so will only diminish our moral authority.
Dermod Travis is the Executive Director of the Canada Tibet Committee