Advocating for Tibetan Rights at the United Nations

By Noah Potash BUSL‘18

When my colleagues Jacqueline Tosto and Kritika Tara Deb and I travelled to the United Nations Office at Geneva earlier this spring to advocate for the rights of the Tibetan people, we had already been preparing for months. We had the good fortune to be working in connection with the dedicated members of the Tibet Advocacy Coalition (TAC), a collection of pro-Tibet organizations from around the world, including the International Tibet Network Secretariat, Tibet Justice Center, Students for a Free Tibet, Tibetan Youth Association Europe and Tibet Initiative Deutschland, as well as Boston University. Their expertise was crucial to our work, as it allowed us to build off of past advocacy rather than starting from scratch. With direction from TAC and Professor Akram, we took on research and writing for various issues to bring up at the UN. The time spent becoming familiar with all of this information prepared us to walk into meetings with UN human rights experts feeling confident that we knew what we needed to do.

The view from Palais Wilson

China’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) session is coming up this fall, so one of our primary objectives was to draft a submission concerning China’s troubling record on human rights in Tibet. These submissions are limited to ten pages, and have fairly strict guidelines on their structure, so our challenge was to identify the most pressing issues from a wide selection of problems. We ended up focusing on six issues: human rights defenders, cultural rights, torture, resettlement of nomads, the right to self-determination, and racial discrimination. Even though we knew that there had been many developments in Tibet on each of these issues since the previous UPR session, China’s tight control over the information flow out of Tibet made it difficult to obtain up-to-date information. Complicating this further was the need to frame each issue in terms of China’s previously accepted UPR recommendations. Our report went through dozens of revisions, but in the end, we were able to produce a fairly comprehensive document that the Coalition submitted to the UN.

While we were collaborating on the UPR submission, each of us worked on individual letters to various UN agencies in connection with potential meetings. I wrote to the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) to follow up on an opinion they had previously issued on the detention of Tibetan activist and cultural advocate Tsegon Gyal. Although Mr. Gyal’s trial was held in May 2017, his verdict was not announced publicly until late February 2018, just a few weeks before our trip. In writing the letter to WGAD, I had to strike a delicate balance. I needed to include enough background material to ensure that his case was put in context, without spending too much time on information that WGAD staff already knew. I also had to synthesize a narrative from a handful of brief news sources to convey Mr. Gyal’s story and make it clear why the WGAD should continue to press China on his case. This point was emphasized in Geneva when we met with a WGAD official, who told us that the Working Group only has the resources to deal with about eighty cases per year, and of course has to consider prisoners from repressive regimes all over the world, not just in China.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention the perspective on international human rights work that we gained from coordinating with TAC in the months leading up to our meetings in Geneva. Everything that we drafted here in Boston was based on initial conversations and emails with TAC members. We had to come up with deadlines that would give TAC enough time to give us thorough feedback on early drafts, while also leaving us time to complete revisions before sending everything off to the UN. The whole process impressed on us the importance of figuring out the logistics early to avoid a mad scramble when deadlines arise. It was inspiring to interact online with a worldwide network of activists for months, and then finally come together for the essential work of face-to-face activism. The professionalism and depth of experience that TAC brought to the table taught us another key lesson: choose your partners well. When we met with UN staffers, it was reassuring to know that within our whole advocacy team, we had someone prepared to answer any question that might arise.

Our seats in the UN Human Rights Council chambers

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