H.E. Li Keqiang, Prime Minister of the People’s Republic of China
Beijing – 100701
Mr. Prime Minister:
We join the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, Habitat International Coalition and its Housing and Land Rights Network in calling for the release of nine Tibetan land defenders recently imprisoned by the Rebkong County People’s Court and the end to the dispossession of the Tibetan people’s habitat resources. We urge Chinese authorities to seek alternatives to such conduct, as the People’s Republic of China is obliged to do within the norms of international law and human rights.
The Rebkong court has sentenced the nine Tibetan land defenders to prison terms ranging between three and seven years for “participating in ‘underworld’ activity.” The men were detained in July 2018 before being formally charged in August of the same year. The Rebkong Court in Malho Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Qinghai Province, handed down the prison sentences between 10 and 14 April 2019 on various charges: founding an “evil organization,” engaging in “forced business transaction,” “extortion and deceit” and mobilizing the public to “disturb social order.”
The organization referred to is a long-running campaign by villagers to reclaim community land that local authorities had appropriated for a failed business enterprise and subsequently abandoned since 2011.
The authorities have charged the community leaders under the law introduced by the Tibet Autonomous Region Public Security Department in February 2018, which criminalizes activities such as advocating economic freedom, right to livelihood, environmental protection and cultural freedom; community fundraising or providing donations to the “Dalai Clique”; the role and influence of indigenous leadership systems in mediating community conflicts; and resisting land grabs, demolitions, infrastructure projects and other related development projects. These arrests mark the first criminal case in Rebkong County People’s Court related to the new law.
The nine sentenced Tibetans are: Gendun Soepa, Choesang, Bhende Dorje, Tashi Tsering, Sonam Gyal, Dhargye, Shawo Tsering, Khajam Gyal and Dukbum Tsering, from the village of Horgyal, in Rebkong County. They are signatories to a February 2017 petition, signed by 24 people in total, demanding the return of Horgyal village land that was expropriated by the government for the construction of three brick factories in exchange for lease payments to the village. The government maintained payments to the village for seven years after the works were closed down in 2011, and then stopped, prompting villagers to organize to demand the return of their land.
The court ruled that the Tibetans had created an “illegal organization” of 24 khagovas to control the “two committees” of the village and usurp “grassroots political power” by “taking over the duties of the ‘two committees’.” The court added that the nine “ringleaders” of the organization “maliciously obstructed the government’s land acquisition work and normal construction operations, committed serious crimes that constitute a crime of gathering people to disturb social order.”
This is not the first time land has been taken by state officials in Rebkong County. In 2016 local officials seized one-third of the property belonging to a Tibetan monastery in Rebkong, and monks have been petitioning for its return ever since. The property had been leased by the Rongwo monastery to a teachers’ college, and was expropriated by officials when the college moved to a new location.
The Constitution of the People’s Republic of China of 1982 (amended in 1988, 1993, 1999, 2004 and 2018) devotes Articles 112–122 to The Organs of Self-Government of National Autonomous Areas. These articles provide that citizens of the nationalities exercising regional autonomy should hold key positions within the government. In practice in Tibet, this has not been the case, with decisions taken in the TAR regularly favoring Chinese settlers and occupiers rather than Tibetan interests.
Articles 26 and 27 of the Regional National Autonomy Law stipulate that, while the land is publicly owned, it is the organs of self-government in national autonomous areas that uphold this principle. In the case of TAR, those organs ostensibly should be run by, and in the interests of Tibetans.
Human Rights, International Law and Treaty Obligations
China is bound by its obligations under the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, which it ratified on 27 March 2001. The Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) issued its most-recent Concluding Observations on China’s performance of the treaty in 2014. CESCR then expressed concern about China’s resettlement of nomadic persons, particularly in the autonomous regions, without adequate consultation or free, prior and informed consent. It urged China immediately to halt non-voluntary resettlement of nomadic herders from their traditional lands and non-voluntary relocation or rehousing programmes for other rural residents, and to carry out meaningful consultations with the affected communities in order to examine and evaluate all available options.
On treatment of Tibetan people more generally, the Committee found that China is failing to address their rights to food and employment, and restricts their realization of their right to take part in cultural life. Where land and natural resources are related to livelihood, CESCR noted the effects of demographic manipulation in “the high rate of unemployment among persons belonging to ethnic minorities, especially Tibetans, Uighurs and Inner Mongolians, in part due to Han Chinese migration into minority areas.”
China is furthermore bound by its obligations under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which it ratified on 29 December 1981. The 19 September 2018 Concluding Observations of the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) point to various concerns over unequal and ill treatment of Tibetans and other peoples living in autonomous regions under Chinese administration.
On the issues of resettlement and land appropriation, CERD raised concern over such practices within the ethnic autonomous areas. Particular issues noted include insufficient compensation and lack of informed consent. The Committee also observed that “large numbers of farmers and nomadic herders, including from ethnic autonomous areas, have lost their traditional lands and livelihoods owing to poverty alleviation and ecological restoration resettlement measures that could be seen as aggressive development models.” The Committee further expressed concern over abuses by State authorities against ethnic minorities “peacefully protesting against the confiscation of land and development activities that have resulted in environmental harm.”
Concerning the rule of law and fair trial related to economic, social and cultural rights, the Committee expressed concerned that “the broad definition of terrorism, the vague references to extremism and the unclear definition of separatism in Chinese laws could potentially lead to the criminalization of peaceful civic and religious expression and facilitate the criminal profiling of ethnic and ethno-religious minorities, including…Buddhist Tibetans...”
CERD has expressed concern also at reports that “certain Tibetans, Uighurs and other ethnic minorities, peaceful political protestors and human rights defenders have been tortured or otherwise subjected to ill-treatment.”
China signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) on 5 October 1998, but has not ratified it, despite several promises to do so. However, signing creates an obligation to refrain from doing anything that contravenes the purpose of the treaty, not least by persecuting Tibetans who exercise the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, as guaranteed in ICCPR. Moreover, PRC is obliged under peremptory norms of international law to avoid such gross violations and grave breaches as denial of a people’s self-determination, and the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity such as population transfer.
Among the comments by states in China’s Universal Periodic Reviews (2009, 2013 and 2018), states such as Australia, Czech Republic, Germany, Kyrgyzstan, Poland, Sweden and Switzerland expressed concerns about harassment, arbitrary arrest, detention, fair trials and punishment of religious and ethnic minorities, including Tibetans.
Consistent with the People’s Republic of China’s treaty obligations domestically to the population under its jurisdiction and effective control and, extraterritorially, to its treaty partners, we urge you to act within your jurisdiction and authority to:
- Immediately release the nine Tibetan prisoners in the Rebkong case and conduct a judicial review of the court proceedings and verdict.
- Undertake a thorough review of PRC laws, regulations and practices in order to remove vague references to “extremism” and the unclear definition of “separatism”that lead to the criminalization of peaceful civic and religious expression and the criminal profiling of minorities, including Tibetans.
- Immediately halt all expropriations, forced evictions, non-voluntary resettlement, relocation or rehousing affecting Tibetan urban and rural inhabitants, as well as nomadic herders from their traditional lands, and carry out meaningful consultations with the affected communities, in order to examine and evaluate all potential impacts and available alternatives to displacement that does not fully comply with the established international human rights standards, including CESCR General Comment No. 7 (1997) on the right to adequate housing: forced evictions, and provide reparation for victims of that gross violation.
- Ensure that laws and their enforcement are consistent with the state’s human rights treaty obligations, and that effective monitoring mechanisms and sufficient safeguards protect against abuse.
- Prevent and prosecute acts of torture and ill-treatment, especially those committed against members of ethnic minorities, including by improving their access to lawyers and fair trial.
- Guarantee the right to appeal in domestic courts for the affected individuals and households, and provide effective legal remedies and adequate reparations for those subject to forced eviction or dispossession.
- Investigate and sanction any allegations of abuse or harassment during such incidents, whether inflicted by private or state agents.
- Ensure the ability of ethnic minorities to conduct peaceful political expression without violation of their corresponding human rights.
We urge you and your offices to apply the same minimum norms of conduct in the public service, and we look forward to hearing of your efforts to apply them in the immediate release of the nine Tibetans imprisoned under the Rebkong People’s Court judgment and the reparation of harm done to the persons subject the abuse of power.