The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, reviewing China’s compliance with a key international treaty, questioned China sharply on its treatment of Tibetans, nomads and other ethnic minority groups.

The questioning was part of the UN’s review of China’s rights obligations under the Convention on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (CESCR), which concluded on May 8. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights comprises of 18 independent experts.

As a part of the review, non-governmental organizations can submit reports and make statements. The International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) made a statement to the Committee highlighting the issues of relocating of Tibetan nomads, education and practice of religion. ICT pointed out that relocation is a threat to the nomads’ ancient way of life and Tibetan identity resulting in the violation of their rights. ICT’s full statement can be found here.

CESCR Committee members raised the following questions relevant to Tibet:

  • Nicolaas Schrijver, the Committee Member acting as Country Rapporteur said he would like to raise the issue of resettlement in the Tibet Autonomous Region and in Inner Mongolia. He pointed out that the Committee learned from China’s report that the government had resettled around 1.7 million nomadic people. Mr. Schrijver said with regard to Tibet that this is a part of China’s western development strategy, which appears to result in a systematic policy with the aim to resettle all nomadic people by 2015. “Obviously this cannot but involve some forcible evictions of Tibetans from their land and obviously this can also infringe on their right to land and the right to enjoy their cultural heritage, their cultural life,” he said. Then Mr. Schrijver asked whether China could comment on ways to have a more minority-friendly development strategy for the West, which also fully respects the nomadic people.
  • Marchan Romero, a further Committee member, also asked what China was doing to implement principles of prior consultations during implementation of large-scale projects, when land belongs to certain ethnic groups. “For example ancestral land that the state wants to use. How does the state manage these consultations with these ethnic minorities?” he asked. The other questions he asked from China were “Does China respect the principle of self-identification and the self identification of ethnic minorities?” and “Do you take into account the existence of Ethnic Minorities when assessing a project? Do you recognize the individual and collective rights of individuals that belong to these ethnic group?” Mr. Romero said the ethnic minorities themselves must have the right to use their language, practice their culture and their history without there being a policy that tends towards the assimilation of these ethnic groups which would lead to the loss of their ethnic identity.
  • Another member of the Committee asked China if there had been any “legislative innovation” on territorial autonomy, how this legislation also covers cultural self-determination and how the country approaches these matters of cultural and territorial self-determination. Education and discrimination were also other themes which the members of the committee questioned China with regard to Tibet.
  • Maria-Virginia Bras Gomes, another committee member also urged China to pass an “anti-discriminatory comprehensive framework law” as a legal framework to prevent specific groups from falling through the cracks. She said “if I were to give you a couple of examples in the case of China, Hong Kong and Macau, I would for example signal discrimination against specific ethnic groups like the Tibetans, or the Uighurs …”

China in its reply denied any such discrimination. The Chinese official also commended Mr. Romero for “being well aware of what is happening in the country.” In answer to Mr. Romero’s questions, the official said that the land in China belongs to the state or a collective and no exception can be made for ethnic minority areas. “When the state carries out infrastructure projects the purpose is to improve the livelihood of the local people and such projects are well received,” said the official from the State Ethnic Affairs Administration office.

The official went on to add that China does respect the local customs and that when they need to do any projects they consult the local people and if the local people don’t like the project they don’t move ahead unless they get the approval of the people. He gave an example where “last week” in the South-West of China the central government had decided to build a power plant and the cable was to go through a mountain inhabited by Ethnic Minorities. “As the minorities objected to this we changed the route,” the official said.

On the issue of self-identification he said that China has carried out several scientific studies on the histories of each ethnic minorities. He also said that people themselves decide whether they belong to an Ethnic Minority.

The Chinese representative added that there was a system of regional autonomy in China where the local governments have extensive rights in the political, cultural and economic fields and can run their own schools and curricula. He also said that government heads, including that of the National Peoples Consultative Council, county and prefecture heads were all from the local ethnic minority.

He went on to say that, among 55 ethnic minorities, 53 had their own languages and the other two had written scripture. Some 10,000 schools used ethnic minority languages in teaching, and traditional medicine was available. “In Tibet for example, Tibetan books made up more than 70 per cent of total publications,” he said.

At the end of the sessions, Mr. Romero said that in the next report he hopes that China will be able to give the Committee more detailed information about the Human Rights plan, specifically where the state party commits itself to making efforts to protect the culture of minority groups. “I would like to ask for more information on how you would intend to adopt these measures for the Tibetan Autonomous Region for the free exercise of the cultural rights and religious practices in that region,” he said.

The committee’s review can be heard here.

The committee’s report with the concluding observations would be made public at the end of May.