Advancing Tibetan Rights through the Universal Periodic Review

Advocacy for Tibetan Language rights.

Chinese violations of Tibetan peoples’ human rights have continued to be globally criticized since their initial occupation of Tibet in 1950. More recently, China’s abuses of Tibetan rights have been a focal point of international criticism’ in the UN Universal Periodic Review process. The Universal Periodic Review, or UPR for short, is a main function of the Human Right Council. The UPR reviews each state’s fulfillment of its human rights obligations and commitments. All 193 UN member states take part in this mechanism, where each state is reviewed in five-year cycles. During each state’s review, member states part of a working group make recommendations on how the state being reviewed could improve its human rights record. The ultimate goal of the UPR is to improve the human rights situation in countries around the world, and to do so by addressing human rights violations wherever they occur.

China’s last UPR assessment took place on June 11, 2018. During this review, China accepted 284 and noted 62 of the recommendations made by member states. Noting, or a “soft rejection,” simply means a country does not accept the recommendation. Typically, noted recommendations are those the State does not believe it can (or should) implement within the next four and a half years.

Despite its assurances to the various UN bodies that it will comply with its treaty commitments, China continues to systematically violate the rights of Tibetan, Uighurs, and other indigenous populations. Chinese oppression manifests itself in the continued denial of Tibetan people’s right to self-determination. During China’s last UPR review, it accepted numerous recommendations, but made no effort to implement these in Tibet — undermining its commitment to the international human rights system. China’s reluctance to afford the Tibetan people and other indigenous populations basic rights flies in the face of guarantees China has made by ratifying the core international human rights treaties. These include the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights; the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women; the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; the Convention on the Rights of a Child; and the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. China has also signed, but not ratified the Convention on Civil and Political rights.

In evaluating Chinese adherence to the UPR process, it is useful to look more closely at the process itself. The UPR process is made up of three parts:

1) A review in Geneva of the human rights situation of the state under review;

2) The implementation of the recommendations by the state under review; and

3) The assessment at the next review on the implementation of those recommendations and the human rights situation in the country between review cycles.

Universal Periodic Review Session held in Geneva.

To give an analogy of the UPR process, imagine your family members all have a chance to give feedback on each other’s contributions to the household. Your turn is up. Your mother says, “you need to help more with the cooking,” your father says, “you should stop leaving your text books all over the dining room table,” and your sister might say “you need to take the dog on more walks.” After hearing all these suggestions, you might think about it and respond with: “Ok, it’s fair I need to do more cooking. But because I already walk the dog every day, I reject that suggestion. And it’s unfair for me to have to move my textbooks because I need them there for school anyway, so I reject that suggestion as well.” In this case your immediate family acts as the working group in the UPR process, whereas your entire extended family (aunts, uncles, cousins, and the like) are like the rest of the 193 member nations of the UN.

The documents submitted as part of the UPR review include a National Report, written by the State under review; a compilation of UN body reports, written by the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) with input from Treaty Bodies, Special Procedures, and UN agencies; and an OHCHR summary of other reports received from national institutions and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The review process begins with the state’s human rights record being reviewed in the working group comprising a select number of other states. The states make recommendations that conclude in a draft report on how to implement them.

But how does the BU International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) use this mechanism to help continue advocacy for Tibetan rights? Through partnerships with NGOs such as the Tibet Justice Center (TJC), and the Tibet Advocacy Coalition (TAC), IHRC can engage directly during China’s UPR Process. IHRC, as any other civil society organization, has the opportunity to participate in the UPR process by submitting information to OHCHR, advocating with country embassies in the state under review, advocating with country missions in Geneva and with states’ Foreign Ministries at side events and in follow up reports.

Cultural rights, freedom of opinion, freedom of expression, minority issues, and torture are both heavily policed by the Chinese government, and are prominent issues for Tibetan nationals. For example, among the recent issues of concern have been the situation of prominent Tibetan activists and religious figures. One such case is about the formal arrest of Tashi Wangchuk, a Tibetan linguistic right activist who was detained and tortured following his appearance in a New York Times documentary. Wangchuk advocated for the right of Tibetans to learn and study their native language. Other defenders of Tibetan human rights have also been arrested, detained, and subjected to heavy surveillance for speaking about Tibetan religious, cultural and other rights, and for gathering peacefully. There is also great concern about the mass expulsion of religious practitioners from Larung Gar and Yanchen Gar — major Tibetan religious communities — demolitions of monastic homes, and excessive use of force, arbitrary arrests and detentions of peaceful protestors. Ultimately, despite China’s claims of adherence to human rights legal obligations, it routinely violates the human rights of indigenous peoples.

This is where we come in. Because China’s UPR review was held in 2018, the State’s mid-term UPR assessment report should be issued in early 2021. While this report is not obligatory, it is considered “good practice.” Civil society groups, like TAC and TJC alongside IHRC, can advocate for China to produce a mid-cycle report, and also urge other states to encourage China to do so. Civil society groups, like IHRC, submit their own reports for the mid-cycle UPR that emphasize the deep gaps in human rights protections afforded to Tibetans and other indigenous populations, in contrast to the narrative that China produces about its human rights record. Our goal is to underscore the importance of accountability of the Chinese government with regard to Tibetan human rights.

As you have probably noted, this can be a long process. However, civil society organizations believe that the UPR is an essential tool that skilled human rights advocates must use to pressure human rights abusers like China to stop their gross and systematic violations of human rights. Over time, the UPR can play an important role in improving human rights across the world.

Boston University School of Law's International Human Rights Clinic.