As the prospect of China’s 1949-50 invasion grew, the Dalai Lama, head of the Tibetan Government, made the first in a series of appeals to the United Nations and its members, requesting intervention on his country’s behalf.

Tibet at the UN General Assembly


A month after the People’s Liberation Army pierced the Eastern frontier of Central Tibet in October 1950, El Salvador responded to Tibet’s plea, submitting a draft resolution to the UN entitled “Invasion of Tibet by Foreign Forces.” Its consideration, however, was suspended on the erroneous belief that Communist China would halt its advance and seek a peaceful accord with the Tibetans. That was not to happen.


By the time of the Tibetan National Uprising in March 1959, it was clear that China had no intention of abating its aggression. The Uprising and the Dalai Lama’s dramatic escape to India once again focused the world’s attention on Tibet. Later that July, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) published The Question of Tibet and the Rule of Law, the first of several reports. It found that “evidence points to a prima facie case of systematic intention…to destroy in whole or in part the Tibetans as a separate nation and the Buddhist religion in Tibet.” Concern by the international community finally moved the General Assembly to act, and the first resolution on Tibet was passed in October of that year.


In 1961, Malaya, and Ireland, sponsors of the 1959 resolution, were joined by El Salvador and Thailand, in their request to include “The Question of Tibet” once again for consideration by the United Nations. Speaking before the General Assembly, Ireland’s representative asked “how many benches would be empty here in this hall if it had always been agreed that when a small nation or a small people fell into the grip of a major Power, no one could ever raise their case here; that once they were a subject nation, they must always remain a subject nation.”

Tibet’s case was bolstered by the ICJ’s second report Tibet and the Chinese People’s Republic. Upon examining Tibet’s legal status, and violations of human rights there, the report concluded that “acts of genocide had been committed”, and that “Tibet was at the very least a de facto independent State” before its annexation by the Chinese government in 1951. With the support of 56 member states, Resolution 1723 (XVI) was passed in the General Assembly on December 20.


By 1965 conditions in Tibet remained bleak. A third ICJ report, Continued Violations of Human Rights in Tibet, was published the previous December. Based on accounts from Tibetan refugees fleeing to India, the report disclosed “a continuance of ill-treatment of many monks, lamas, and other religious figures, resulting in death through excessive torture, beatings, starvation and forced labour…” Following the report and the Dalai Lama’s appeal, the issue was reintroduced at the UN yet again by the 1961 sponsors, joined this time by Nicaragua and the Philippines.

India, speaking out for the first time, reminded the General Assembly that “ever since Tibet came under the strangle-hold of China, the Tibetans have been subjected to a continuous and increasing ruthlessness which has few parallels in the annals of the world.” The Philippines pointed out that 15 years after the “mock liberation of Tibet”, the People’s Republic of China had still “not identified the ‘aggressive imperialist forces in Tibet'”, and Thailand noted that the majority of states refuted “the contention that Tibet is part of China.” Following these and other remarks, Resolution 2079 (XX) on the Question of Tibet was passed on December 18, 1965.

In short…

During the various General Assembly debates, several members spoke passionately, denouncing the Communist government’s aggression against Tibet as a violation of its independence. However, while two of the resolutions referred to the principle of self-determination, all three skirted the issue of Tibet’s status under international law, focusing instead on human rights violations.

To this day, the United Nations’ unfinished consideration of the question of Tibet remains one of the global body’s most notable and longstanding acts of omission.

For an account of Tibet and the UN see Michael Van Walt’s “The Status of Tibet”, 1987; Warren Smith Jr.’s “Tibetan Nation, 1996; Tsering Shakya’s “The Dragon in the Land of Snows”, 1999; His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s “My Land and My People”, 1977; and The Bureau of H.H. the Dalai Lama’s “Tibet in the United Nations, 1950-1961”. See also the International Commission of Jurists’ reports, “The Question of Tibet and the Rule of Law”, 1959; “Tibet and the Chinese People’s Republic”, 1960; “Tibet: Human Rights and the Rule of Law”, 1997.