Tibet - as seen in London and Washington

19th June 2015

US speaks frankly: UK tries to please Beijing

This week has seen detailed statements on Tibet by both a UK government minister and the US State Department's Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues. Both governments expressed concern about human rights in Tibet and China's policies but neither was willing to challenge China's claim that Tibet is part of China, or to back the right of the Tibetan people to determine their own political future.

Washington:"people despair"

In a speech at an event in Geneva where the United Nations Human Rights Council is meeting, US Under Secretary Sarah Sewall emphasised restrictions on religious freedom in Tibet. Despite international concerns and its own legal and constitutional obligations, she said that Beijing had:

"tighten[ed] already strict controls on Tibetans’ freedom of religion, expression, assembly, association, and movement. Chinese authorities have also taken actions to denigrate His Holiness the Dalai Lama."

Describing China's policies in Tibet as "unfortunate and unfair", Ms Sewall also raised the restrictions on access to Tibet for UN representatives, diplomats and journalists. China sometimes allows diplomats and media highly controlled visits to Tibet but refuses free access which would allow a proper evaluation of the situation inside Tibet. In a striking phrase when talking about self-immolation protests in Tibet, Ms Sewall said

"In the absence of peaceful avenues for the exercise of basic rights, people despair."

Although she called for improvements in human rights, the US government's representative made no reference to Tibetans' right as a people to decide whether they wish to remain part of China. She also avoided describing the situation in Tibet as "severe repression", even though the State Department's own human rights report used that language.

London: "our relationship with China has never been closer"

In a lengthy debate in the House of Commons, Hugo Swire, the junior UK minister with responsibility for China, was far less direct than his US counterpart. Mr Swire opened his speech by reaffirming that the UK considers Tibet to be part of the People's Republic of China. He went on to say that the relationship between the two countries had "never been closer". He repeated language commonly used by Chinese state media that:

"rapid economic growth has raised living standards across China and has improved access to a range of social and economic rights. In Tibet, investment in education, healthcare and employment has led to a doubling in life expectancy since the early 1950s."

On human rights, Mr Swire referred to specific and long-standing concerns about religious freedom, freedom of expression and "ethnic minority rights". His only specific call for action, however, was that political prisoners have proper access to medical care. Mr Swire mentioned self-immolations - more than 140 have been confirmed in Tibet - but made no comment about their causes or China's responses to them, which include punishments for families and communities of self-immolation protesters.

Take action

While the US is more robust on human rights in Tibet than the UK, both refuse to support Tibetans' struggle for freedom. Contact China's government directly and call for action on Tibet's Jailed Musicians.