Last week, 22 of 28 Nobel Peace Prize winners gathered in South Korea for the 2006 Gwangju (Kwangju) Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates. Winners from Kenya, Russia, Guatemala, Iran, East Timor, and the United Kingdom have accepted invitations, as have representatives from Nobel-winning organizations, such as Amnesty International, the International Red Cross, and the American Friends Service Committee.
The Dalai Lama, however, couldn’t attend. Not because he wasn't invited, or because he had other plans: like those other laureates, the Dalai Lama, winner of the 1989 award, had also accepted an invitation from the Kim Dae-jung Presidential Library to a summit about peace on the Korean Peninsula and in all of East Asia.
But the South Korean government has refused to grant him a visa, letting politics trump its own peace initiatives. As a Foreign Ministry official told Human Rights Watch, ``Considering various factors, for now, we decided the Dalai Lama's visit to South Korea is not desirable.’’
The government of South Korea, sensitive to the wishes of China, has consistently refused the Dalai Lama entry to its territory. In 2000, for example, a committee of private citizens representing 73 religious and civic organizations invited the Dalai Lama to visit in November. The South Korean government was in no way involved.
After the Chinese embassy in Seoul made known its displeasure, a representative of the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade met with group members and asked that they postpone the suggested visit until 2001. That visit never took place; nor did one proposed by the student council of Seoul National University that same year. The Dalai Lama had planned to deliver a speech at the university on peace and non-violence. But, said a Foreign Ministry official, ``His visit would not be beneficial to the country's national interest.’’
For many, the Dalai Lama is not only a desired visitor but an emblem of their desire for peace. How ironic, then, that he was prevented from contributing last week to a gathering dedicated in part to ``reaffirm democracy and human rights as universal values of human kind and the foundation of peace around the world.’’
The Dalai Lama has a long history of promoting core human rights values, among them the unfettered exchange of ideas central to the Kwangju conference agenda. For decades he has attempted to find a ``middle way’’ through the thicket of conflicting Tibetan and Chinese visions for Tibet _ a well-documented example of his search for peaceful solutions to long-standing problems, one of the conference's themes.
China, which for years has adamantly opposed criticism of its policies toward Tibet and the Dalai Lama, seeing it as interference in its internal affairs, has not hesitated to interfere in the internal affairs of other states with respect to the Dalai Lama. Beijing has consistently warned that states permitting even private visits by the Dalai Lama risk Chinese retribution.
The threats work. Private visits are generally limited to participation in religious gatherings or academic seminars. If government officials are involved, topics such as Tibetan independence or China's policies are typically omitted from the agenda. And, absurdity of absurdities, the 2000 Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders in New York left the Dalai Lama off the invitation list of more than 1,000 for fear of offending China.
To their credit, several states and multi-lateral organizations have ignored China's warnings. In early June 2006, European Union leaders brushed aside China's objections and met the Dalai Lama in Brussels. He has also recently traveled to Argentina, Chile, and Peru. The U.S. has hosted the Dalai Lama on many occasions, as has Japan. Switzerland went ahead with a visit in 2005; Mexico, Russia, and South Africa received him the previous year. And this list is far from exhaustive.
It is too late for South Korea to reverse its stand. But it is not too late for those attending the Kwangju conference, as well as those who had to refuse the invitation, to publicly air their displeasure with South Korea's stance, and with all countries bowing to similar pressures.
Kim Dae-jung, a former president, a Nobel laureate, and a conference convener, should organize such an effort. By making this public statement, Nobel Peace laureates would reiterate their commitment to the free exchange of ideas and invite all those equally committed to join with them.
Mickey Spiegel is China Researcher for Human Rights Watch.