Hearing on “Protecting Religious Freedom: U.S Efforts to Hold Accountable Countries of Particular Concern”

Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Global Human Rights

May 22, 2014

I would like to thank Chairman Smith, Ranking Member Bass, and other members of the Subcommittee for this opportunity to testify.

The International Campaign for Tibet has testified to and extensively documented the attacks on freedom of religion in Tibet. First, I would like to give you a snapshot of all the restrictions that have been placed on the practice of Tibetan Buddhism in China today and then I will go into ways the U.S. can hold Countries of Particular Concern accountable.

The International Campaign for Tibet is a non-profit organization that has been advocating for a quarter century for the democratic freedoms and human rights of the Tibet people, in Washington, Europe and beyond.

The government of the People’s Republic of China restricts the practice of Tibetan Buddhism both through policies and as well as extra-judicial practices.

The institution of Tibetan Buddhism is seen by the Chinese government as a potential threat to the authority of the Communist Party. The state therefore imposes its control over the practice of this religion. This has led to the creation of a criminal class of religious practitioners, both among the clergy and lay people, as implemented under Chinese criminal laws. Ordinary Tibetans face detention or torture simply for holding a picture of the Dalai Lama or travelling for pilgrimage without official approval.

According to the Congressional Executive Commission on China (CECC), 58 percent of the Tibetans in its political prisoner database are monks and nuns. One notable prisoner of conscience is Tenzin Delek Rinpoche a highly respected Lama who was sentenced to death (converted to life in prison) and is now serving his 13th year in prison. He is on the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission Prisoner of Conscience list.

This strict control of religious activities is manifested in several ways. The Chinese government controls monasteries with regulations such as the 2011 policy called the “Complete Long Term Management Mechanism for Tibetan Buddhist Monasteries.” This system requires a “Management Committee” of up to 30 lay officials appointed by the government to be responsible for the rituals and other matters in the monastery. This policy constricts the education of new monks in the monasteries according to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition and instead forces them to learn only in a manner in which the government approves.

In 2007, China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) Department issued regulations on reincarnation of Tibetan Buddhism. These required that all reincarnations get government approval, or otherwise be “illegal or invalid.” These regulations would apply to the next Dalai Lama. The decree states, “Reincarnating living Buddhas should respect and protect the principles of the unification of the state, protecting the unity of minorities….” It also requires that temples, which “apply” for reincarnation of a living Buddha, must already be registered venues for Tibetan Buddhist activities. Reincarnation applications have to be submitted to four governmental bodies for approval.

Chairman Smith, you are well aware of the tragedy this regulation of religion causes, through your association with the case of the Panchen Lama. Gedhun Choekyi Nyima was disappeared by Chinese authorities in 1995 after being recognized as the 10th Panchen Lama by the Dalai Lama. His current whereabouts are unknown. The Chinese Communist Party instead appointed a boy of their choosing, who does not have the respect of the Tibetan people.

For ICT this reincarnation law “indicates a more aggressive and consistent approach towards controlling the selection, installation and education of reincarnate lamas (including the Dalai Lama), as a means of strengthening the government’s position as the ‘official’ arbiter of Tibetan Buddhist culture.”[1] The Chinese government imposes these stringent measures in full knowledge that Buddhist institutions and education are the bedrock of the Tibetan culture and identity. Despite 60 years of Chinese propaganda, Tibetans’ devotion to the Dalai Lama and their belief system has not diminished.

With this in mind, it is important that the United States, as a democratic country, employs all the tools in its diplomatic toolbox to promote the freedom of religious belief and practice, as provided by domestic and international law and by our value system.

One of the ways the U.S. holds others accountable on violations of religious freedom is through the designation of “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Uzra Zeya said at the Brookings Institute on May 14, 2014, that a top-tier manner in which the Department operationalizes religious engagement within U.S foreign policy is “The International Religious Freedom Report and Country of Particular Concern (CPC) Designations.”

The CPC tool is valued by the State Department. It is supported by the majority of Congress, as well as by the international religious freedom advocacy community. Clearly, there is no political will to remove the CPC process.

But objectively, is CPC a needed tool? I say yes.

Promoting fundamental human rights, including freedom of religion, is a long-standing and core aspect of U.S. foreign policy. The establishment and employment of mechanisms to review countries’ compliance comports with international law. The U.S. maintains through its domestic law various mechanisms to monitor and promote accountability of these human rights.

The CPC is one of the mechanisms the U.S. has at its disposal. Its value is several-fold. For one, it forces the Department to undergo a process of determination for CPC designation. That serves to inculcate the importance of religious freedom within the bureaucracy. It also informs Congress, opinion leaders, and the public on the record of our trading partners on this important human rights metric.

Most important of all, the CPC designation sends a critical and necessary signal to those whose inherent rights to religious belief and practice are being violated by their own governments to know that the world is watching out for them. This is the lesson I can convey from the Tibet experience.

I am not able to inform the Subcommittee that the CPC designation has directly led to the freeing of one monk from detention, or allowed one nun to openly venerate the Dalai Lama. If that is the metric by which some analyst is urging you to evaluate the effectiveness of CPC, then I urge you to look at the bigger picture.

Free, democratic countries do make a difference in the lives of those living in oppressed countries. We have plenty of evidence that Tibetans suffering under the heavy, brutal hand of Chinese oppression take great heart in knowing that the United States hears their cry. When the Dalai Lama meets the President, Tibetans celebrate. How do they learn this? Through the U.S.-funded Voice of America and Radio Free Asia.

Keeping human rights at the center of United States’ relationship with China, or actually with any country, is important. The CPC designation is a medium for a democratic country to engage with a country that is aggressive both internally and externally. For a mutually beneficial relationship between countries the development of the rule of law is integral and cannot be dismissed as a secondary matter.

The CPC is an important tool because it is grounded in the rule of law. It has clear benchmarks that indicate the measures a country has to take, to be taken off the list. The way to keep such designated countries accountable is to follow up on those benchmarks and criteria and tenaciously continue to do so until they have been met.

China may be intransigent on human rights. So we must be all the more firm in creating clear expectations that they abide by the international standards they agreed to accept and which their citizens deserve. Withdrawal of CPC, rather, would send an extremely negative signal to the people of China and Tibet who are struggling every day for rights and dignity.

Every Tibetan monk and lay person who today is facing persecution just for lighting a butter lamp or keeping a picture of His Holiness the Dalai Lama needs to know that the United States and the international community stand with them. The Countries of Particular Concern designation provides a beacon of hope as they peacefully resist oppression.

Thank you.

[1] ICT report, ‘New measures on reincarnation reveal Party’s objectives of political control’ https://savetibet.org/new-measures-on-reincarnation-reveal-partys-objectives-of-political-control/, August 15, 2007