Human Rights Advocacy in the Time of COVID-19

There’s a saying that goes, “The worse the wedding the better the marriage.” At least, that is what an optimistic engaged couple told our Tibet team as we sat at Logan Airport in early March. They, like us, were waiting for a flight to Geneva — a flight that was supposed to take off the night before but had been delayed for three hours, then canceled, then rescheduled for the next day. This, all on the brink of what would become a global pandemic by the time our trip had ended! As we sat at Boston’s Logan Airport, thinking about how to make up for our lost day at the U.N. Human Rights Council, we hoped that the saying also applied to international human rights advocacy…

… and it did! A major part of our successful trip was because of all the hard work we had put in leading up to it. Prior to the journey, the Clinic and our partner, the Tibet Advocacy Coalition (TAC), submitted two requests for intervention to three separate Special Rapporteurs (SRs). The first submission focused on China’s restrictions on internal freedom of movement in Tibet, its impact on the Tibetan people’s ability to exercise their right to take part in their cultural life, and to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. The second submission addressed China’s Belt Road Initiative (BRI) in Tibet and the consequent mass displacement of Tibetans and other human rights violations related to the Tibetan people’s right to development. These submissions served as the foundation for our advocacy work in Geneva.

Once we touched down in Geneva, our team also found ways to make the most of the difficult situation which greeted us. The Human Rights Council had canceled all side events in light of the coronavirus, including ones that were particularly relevant to Tibetan advocacy such as surveillance and counterterrorism. Our team’s response was to fill that time interacting with more Special Rapporteurs and State representatives than we originally anticipated. While it is usual to meet only with SRs’ staff members, we were able to take this opportunity to speak with a number of the SRs directly, as their time had freed up due to event cancellations. We were able to meet with four of the SRs with whom we had communicated — on the Environment, Religious Freedom, Cultural Rights, and Human Rights Defenders. We were also, unexpectedly, able to meet with numerous State representatives, including Germany, Denmark, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States!

U.N. Human Rights Council building in Geneva!

Our very first SR meeting with the SR on the Environment took place just a few hours after we deplaned (it’s a good thing that Geneva has great coffee & tea, keeping our team well-caffeinated!). We briefed the SR on the immense and urgent environmental impacts of the BRI in Tibet. We focused specifically on Tibetan nomads’ historic pastoralism, which dates back nearly 9,000 years, and how its positive contribution to a healthy environment in Tibet is being hamstrung through China’s policies.

Our next meeting, with the SR on Religious Freedom, focused on how China’s restrictions on Tibetans’ internal freedom of movement, including surveillance of Tibetan monks and nuns, have imposed on religious freedom and deprived Tibetans of their ability to practice their religion. This SR was especially interested in China’s new Ethnic Unity law; coming into force in May the new law poses a serious threat to Tibetan’s religious freedom under the guise of promoting “ethnic unity.”

Perhaps our liveliest meeting was with the staff of the SR on Cultural Rights, to discuss what impact the BRI is having on Tibetans’ cultural rights, and particularly on nomads’ rights to live how they see fit. We discussed what the connection is between the BRI and cultural rights — namely, the evidence of a direct correlation between the BRI and how Tibetan nomads’ rights are being violated. We learned that there is a counter-argument to the focus on nomadic rights — that is, the right of every country to development on its own terms. As advocates, our job is to thread the needle and not only explain what is happening, but why that particular SR should get involved. In this case, why should the SR on Cultural Rights get involved when China has a right to development?

Our meeting with the staff of the SR on Human Rights Defenders was similarly productive and dynamic. We discussed the reprisals Tibetans continue to face for speaking out against China for its human rights violations. This mandate connects to our advocacy work because China has arrested and tortured individuals who speak out against the Chinese Communist Party, especially monks and nuns. We learned of the efforts of several SRs to collaborate on the approach of recognizing “cultural rights defenders” as a class of human rights defenders. This would encompass Tibetans who are advocating for nomadic rights in addition to human rights and condemn reprisals against such individuals.

In addition to these meetings, our team also enjoyed some extra time to connect with other advocates and to participate in a workshop on self-determination. In particular, we strengthened our connections with Uighur activists, who are also under occupation by China and currently face similar systemic human rights violations. In fact, the new Ethnic Unity Law that China is enacting in Tibet is based on a nearly identical law already enacted in the Uighur region. By connecting with other movements, we are able to build strategies together and learn from each other’s failures and successes. This is an important component of advocacy work, particularly when it relates to broader self-determination strategies.

Unfortunately, our team and collaborators arrived to witness some egregious Chinese propaganda (see photo below). The title alone is misleading, as the groups showcased — including Tibetans and Uighurs — do not even identify as Chinese ethnic groups! It was extremely disappointing to our groups to see the HRC permit this level of blatant propaganda at an event where victims of Chinese human rights abuses were speaking out about their treatment by Chinese authorities.

Unfortunate display of Chinese propaganda in the heart of the UN Human Rights Council.
Unfortunate display of Chinese propaganda in the heart of the UN Human Rights Council.

All in all, though, the Clinic and our partners enjoyed a successful trip, and we look forward to following up with individuals we connected with at the session. Just as we were excited to build on the work accomplished in previous years, we hope that our advocacy this year will allow next year’s team to engage in even more meaningful and impactful ways to advance Tibetan rights at the global level.

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