Sarah Sewall

Under Secretary and US Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues Sarah Sewall with former Tibetan political prisoner Golog Jigmy and ICT Europe’s Executive Director Tsering Jampa at the side event in Geneva.

US Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues Sarah Sewall, in her remarks at Lockdown in Tibet panel at UN in Geneva, on June 15, 2015 said, “Tibetans have an inalienable right to be stewards of their unique cultural, religious and linguistic heritage’ and urged members of the UN Human Rights Council “to join the United States in encouraging the Chinese government to live up to its international obligations to respect Tibetans’ distinct culture, identity, and fundamental human rights, as well as respect international protocols on diplomatic relations and reciprocal access among states.”

The panelists include the U.S. Ambassador to the Human Rights Council, Mr. Keith Harper; the Undersecretary of State and Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues, Dr. Sarah Sewall; the President of the International Campaign for Tibet, Mr. Matteo Mecacci; Ven. Golog Jigmy, a former Tibetan political prisoner recently arrived in Europe; and Mr. Juan Pablo Cardenal, journalist and writer as well as former China correspondent for Spanish newspapers.

Following is the full text of her remarks.

Remarks Delivered at the “Lockdown in Tibet” Event

Remarks — Sarah Sewall
Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights
Geneva, Switzerland
June 15, 2015

(As Prepared for Delivery — View Online)


Thank you Ambassador Harper for that kind introduction. We wish you and your colleagues a productive 28th session of the Human Rights Council. And thank you to the Helsinki Foundation for arranging this event. I am very pleased to be here.

At the U.S. Department of State, I serve as the Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights. I was also designated by Secretary Kerry as the Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues, a position created within the State Department in 1997.

We believe that the Tibetan people, like people all around the world, should be able to enjoy their fundamental freedoms enshrined in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. The State Department’s country reports on human rights noted that China “engaged in the severe repression of Tibet’s religious, cultural, and linguistic heritage by, among other means, strictly curtailing the civil rights of China’s ethnic Tibetan population, including the freedoms of speech, religion, association, assembly, and movement.” So there is no more fitting place to discuss the barriers and challenges that Tibetans face than here in Geneva on the margins of the Human Rights Council.

The problem of Tibet is, of course, also a problem for China. For the United States, just as for many countries represented here today, China is a vital strategic partner, and we welcome its participation and leadership in the web of international norms, laws and practices that have helped preserve global stability since the end of World War II. As we look at the past 70 years, one of the key long term lessons is the cost and fragility of the repressive state. Thus, as we look for China to play a growing role in the international community, we also look for it to abide by its international commitments with respect to the human rights of people in Tibet.

Human Rights Council and Tibet

Over the years, this Council has been a key advocate for Tibetan human rights by maintaining attention on this issue through its sessions, the work of its Special Rapporteurs, and the Universal Periodic Review process.

In recent sessions, many countries – including Canada, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Iceland, Japan, New Zealand, Poland, Switzerland and the United Kingdom – have argued that China must make more progress in upholding its international obligations to protect Tibetans’ fundamental human rights.

In 2013, nine states made Tibet-specific recommendations to China in its UPR process. They called for China to improve religious freedom, minority rights, and access for UN officials to Tibet. The Chinese government, however, accepted only one of the twelve recommendations.

Human Rights Situation

The United States has consistently urged the Chinese government to uphold its international commitments to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms, specifically by ending the harassment, detention, and other mistreatment of individuals who seek to peacefully practice their religion, express their views or seek legal redress. We call on Chinese authorities to release Tenzin Delek Rinpoche and other prisoners of conscience, and to allow Dhondup Wangchen to be reunited with his family.

Many other states, like Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Sweden have also worked to maintain attention on human rights challenges in Tibet with their own annual reports on human rights. We applaud these efforts and encourage other countries to do the same.

Unfortunately, China’s response has been to tighten already strict controls on Tibetans’ freedom of religion, expression, assembly, association, and movement. Chinese authorities have also taken actions to denigrate His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

This is unfortunate and counterproductive. I have met with the Dalai Lama on three occasions, including at his residence in Dharamsala in a visit last year. I have seen that the spiritual connection between the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhists is beyond measure. His views are widely reflected within Tibetan society, and we believe he can be a constructive partner for China in addressing continuing tensions in Tibetan areas.

Access to Tibet

The Tibetan Plateau’s stunning beauty and unique culture are world treasures that all should be able to enjoy. During his visit to Tibet last month, U.S. Ambassador to China Max Baucus said he looked forward to cooperation on clean energy development, the environment, and wetlands. We welcome China’s promise to promote foreign tourism in Tibet. While investments in infrastructure have removed the geographical barriers to access to the Tibetan plateau, significant other obstacles remain.

Every single foreigner who wishes to visit the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) must first obtain a special entry permit from the Chinese authorities. This is not required for travel to any other provincial-level entity in China.

Diplomats and journalists also face regular challenges in visiting Tibet. Reciprocity is a cornerstone of diplomatic relations. However, while Chinese diplomats and journalists travel freely throughout the United States, our diplomats and journalists are not afforded the same access to Tibet. Over the last four years, 35 of 39 requests made by our Embassy or Consulates to visit the TAR were denied.

The restrictions on access frustrate our ability to provide services to American citizens. In October 2013, the Chinese government delayed consular access to the TAR for over 48 hours during an emergency situation involving a bus accident. The bus crash resulted in the deaths of three U.S. citizens and injuries of several others. Under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations and the 1981 U.S.-China Bilateral Consular Convention, China is obligated to allow expedient consular access. We urge China to fulfil its obligations.

The Foreign Correspondents Club of China, which represents journalists from some 40 nations, has reported that Tibetan areas in China are effectively off-limits to foreign reporters. We have expressed our deep concern that foreign and domestic journalists in China continue to face restrictions that impede their ability to do their jobs, including delays in visa processing. We urge China to commit to a timely, predictable visa issuance and credentialing process for foreign journalists, unblock U.S. media websites, and eliminate restrictions on journalists in Tibet and other areas.

While we are pleased that Ambassador Baucus was allowed to visit Lhasa last month, our concerns about restricted access remain and we continue to push for greater diplomatic access to Tibet.. We are not alone in our frustration and know that other countries have encountered similar obstacles. I encourage you to share those here today.

Navi Pillay, the then-High Commissioner on Human Rights, noted in 2012 that there were 12 outstanding requests for official visits to China by Special Rapporteurs. To my knowledge, none has yet been granted. In the UPR process, China agreed to a visit by the High Commissioner. High Commissioner Zeid seeks to visit to Tibet as part of his promised visit to China. We urge China to allow the High Commissioner to visit Tibet and to reconsider its opposition to upholding the Vienna Convention on consular access.

Religious Freedom

In encouraging tourism to enjoy Tibet’s extraordinary heritage, China should acknowledge that this heritage is inextricably linked with the free and authentic practice of Tibetan Buddhism. Yet in recent years, China has taken an increasingly assertive and controlling role in the Tibetan people’s cultural and religious affairs.

In March 2015, the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief Heiner Bielefeldt criticized China’s efforts to control the reincarnation of Tibetan monks, arguing that the Chinese government was “destroying the autonomy of religious communities, poisoning the relationship between different sub-groups, creating schisms, pitching off people against each other in order to exercise control.”

This analysis was echoed by the State Department’s own reports on International Religious Freedom, which note China’s growing interference in the centuries-old system of recognizing reincarnate Tibetan Buddhist lamas. In a very notable case, soon after the Dalai Lama recognized the 11th Panchen Lama, Gedun Choekyi Nyima, he was disappeared. The Chinese government has since banned images of him and refuses to respond to inquiries about his whereabouts.

The current Dalai Lama has said that the question of whether there will be another Dalai Lama, and if so who it will be, should be resolved within the Tibetan Buddhist community according to their longstanding traditions. He said it would be inappropriate for the Chinese government to “meddle in the system of reincarnation and especially the reincarnations of the Dalai Lamas and Panchen Lamas.” The basic and universally recognized right of religious freedom demands that any decision on the next Dalai Lama must be reserved to the current Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhist leaders, and the Tibetan people.


In the absence of peaceful avenues for the exercise of basic rights, people despair. The US, EU and former High Commissioner Pillay, all have urged China to address the restrictions on rights and freedoms that have driven some 140 Tibetans to set themselves on fire in protest.

This tragedy underscores the need for the Chinese government to resume direct dialogue, without preconditions, with the Dalai Lama or his representatives. We are very concerned that it has been more than five years since the last round of dialogue. The situation on the ground, as others on this panel will discuss, continues to deteriorate.

When President Obama last invited the Dalai Lama to the White House in February 2014, he stressed the benefits of renewed dialogue and expressed support for the Dalai Lama’s “Middle Way” approach. The Dalai Lama has repeatedly clarified that he does not seek independence, and instead wants China to help preserve Tibet’s cultural heritage through genuine autonomy within the People’s Republic of China. We believe the Dalai Lama is sincere and can be a constructive partner for peace and stability. We urge China to seize this opportunity.


Like any people, Tibetans have an inalienable right to be stewards of their unique cultural, religious and linguistic heritage. They have a right to do so without interference, in peace and with dignity. I urge members of the Council to join the United States in encouraging the Chinese government to live up to its international obligations to respect Tibetans’ distinct culture, identity, and fundamental human rights, as well as respect international protocols on diplomatic relations and reciprocal access among states.

Thank you.