One question is inescapable when one talks about Tibet’s relationship with China, the issue of independence and self-determination. Before the Chinese invasion, Tibet was an independent nation.

Tibetans have fought a tireless battle for independence since 1950 while the Chinese on their side, equally tirelessly, have defeated the Tibetan demand for independence. This conflict falls under the topic of law.

What is the international law?

International law is often defined as the legal relationship between states. This means the international law rules that have international validity and that the different states must follow. International law must be kept separate from the individual state’s own legal systems, and provide a system for that. When two or more countries enter into an agreement or a convention, they have to follow the international law rules. The various human rights conventions are examples of international legal agreements.

What is a state?

The fact that under international law a state is a narrowly defined geographic area means that it comes under general international law rules of a state. There are usually four conditions that must be met for an area can be characterized as a state:

a state must have a permanent population (registered residents)
a state must have a specific territory
a state must have a centralized and organized control
a state must have a certain independence.

Tibet’s independence demand

China invaded Tibet in 1950 and legitimized the invasion with that Tibet had always been part of China. Since then the Chinese have argued that Tibet is Chinese territory. From an international law perspective Tibet fulfilled the criteria mentioned above and as such was an independent state in the period from 1912 to 1951. The Chinese invasion was therefore an act of aggression against an independent nation and a clear violation of international law.

In 1959, 1961 and 1965, the UN General Assembly adopted the resolutions on violations of fundamental human rights in Tibet, including the right to self-determination. These resolutions haves their roots in the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of 1948. It was claimed that the violations of fundamental human rights in Tibet had to stop and it was decided that the Tibetan people have the right to self-determination in accordance with international human rights. The General Assembly expressed grave concern over the continuing violations of fundamental human rights committed against Tibetans in Tibet. It was also pointed out that the Chinese had violated 16 articles of the Universal Declaration.

In accordance with these resolutions the Tibetan people have the right to self-determination and based on the current state of the law Tibetans have the right to decide over its territory and independently determine the country’s economy and politics.

During an international law conference in London in 1993 these issues were taken up again. The conference gathered 31 international lawyers from around the world and the theme of the conference was the Tibetans right to independence and self-determination. Under the summary, among other things it was underlined that the issue of self-determination is not just a matter of law but also a question of what Tibetans believe themselves, as a nation – their self-consciousness and national identity must be a starting point for further discussions. Tibetans have chosen to fight a battle without violence; it is a war of symbols and legitimacy that is fought against the occupying forces.

The world’s attitude

However, the world community has tacitly accepted the invasion and occupation of Tibet. It was only the way the Chinese have executed these which have been subject to reactions. Despite the fact that Tibet under international law was independent when China invaded Tibet, no government have recognized Tibet as an occupied country. But this does not necessarily say that the country has lost its right to independence. State which have met the criteria for independence does not lose their status as a state just because it has been occupied for shorter or longer periods. The Baltic States were recognized as the Soviet Russian sovereignty and jurisdiction in almost 50 years before they regained their independence.

During the last 30 years there have been few international sanctions against the Chinese occupation. Not before the 1995 a draft resolution against China has been submitted before the UN Human Rights Commission. When it has been discussed a few times in the past to propose against China, the Chinese have threatened economic sanctions and suggestions have thus dropped. The proposal in 1995 was however defeated by one vote and it was therefore not adopted any resolution on the human rights situation in China. China is currently one of the world’s most powerful economies with seemingly limitless possibilities.

We need not go further than our own country to see that economic interests can be guided by the political choices made. When H.H. Dalai Lama visited Norway in 1988, Norwegian politicians refused to meet him. The reason was that the Chinese threatened to terminate contracts with Norwegian companies, which could mean lost jobs in Norway. With such pressure can a giant as China repeatedly manipulate the international community, the last time just before the 4th UN Women’s Conference in Beijing in 1995, were Norwegian citizens with Tibetan background were denied entrance visa to China.

People’s court system has neither coercive nor legislative authority. All international agreements and conventions depend on the good will of the individual member states. This means that the international legal system soon becomes a victim of a real political game. Until the world community will find an efficient system to enforce the rules, one must hope that justice will win with the help of political goodwill and moral conscience.

Suggested reading

Michael C. van Walt van Praag, The Status of Tibet, History, Rights, and Prospects in International Law, London (Wisdom Publications) 1987
Dyade 3/1989 (temahefte: “Norsk Dobbeltmoral. Norges forhold til Tibet og Kina“)
R. McCorquodale/N. Orosz, Tibet: The Position in International Law, London (Edition Hansjörg Mayer/ Serindia) 1994