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(Geneva) - The Human Rights Council should actively engage on serious human rights abuses wherever they occur, including the current crisis in Tibet, Human Rights Watch said today. In the council’s session yesterday, states and nongovernmental organizations raising the situation in Tibet were continually interrupted by China and other states, and discussion was eventually curtailed by procedural motions.

“The council has not only the right, but the obligation to address the Tibet crisis,” said Juliette de Rivero, Geneva advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s scandalous that the council ends up silencing those who are trying to make sure it does its job.”

Australia, Slovenia (on behalf of the European Union), Switzerland and the United States raised human rights abuses in Tibet when the council was addressing follow-up and implementation of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action. This declaration, adopted at the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights, recommitted states to fundamental human rights standards and laid out a framework for future efforts to realize those principles.

China repeatedly objected to references regarding its actions in Tibet, arguing that discussions of a “country specific” situation were out of order. Algeria, Cuba, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe – all states where serious human rights violations persist – joined China in trying to block the debate. The council’s discussions deteriorated into procedural wrangling over whether discussion of a single human rights situation was appropriate given that the agenda topic was the Vienna Declaration. Ambassador Doru Costea of Romania, the HRC president, ultimately yielded, and agreed to restrict discussion by requiring that statements not address a single human rights situation.

On March 10, 2008, hundreds of monks from Drepung monastery, five miles west of the Tibetan capital Lhasa, began peaceful protests calling for an end to religious restrictions and release of imprisoned monks. By the end of the week, protests had spread to Tibetan communities in neighboring Gansu, Qingh ai, and Sichuan provinces, and in Kathmandu, Nepal, and Dharamsala, India. Chinese authorities moved swiftly to expel foreign journalists and tourists from the region, and to only allow footage on national television of Tibetans attacking Han and Hui people. Human Rights Watch has condemned acts of violence committed by Tibetans, but has also expressed concern about harassment, arbitrary arrests, possible mistreatment in detention, and shootings of Tibetans in the wake of the protests.

The flashpoint yesterday over Tibet exposed a deep-seated shortcoming within the council’s work to date. Some states have pressed for discussion of human rights “themes,” rather than particular instances of human rights abuse, and have in the extreme argued that no “country specific” situations should be addressed at the council. While thematic discussions on issues such as violence against women are important, those issues emerge in particular contexts, and limiting discussion to abstract principles saps thematic discussions of their value.

States argued that discussion of human rights abuses in a particular country should be limited to the council’s agenda item on “human rights situations that require the council’s attention.” In practice, this would have meant relegating all discussion of specific situations to a half-day within the council’s four-week session.

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called upon the council to take up a broader range of urgent country situations demanding its attention. (See “Down to Business: The Human Rights Council’s Backlog of Work,” and “More Business Than Usual: The Work Which Awaits the Human Rights Council”).

“The council should try to improve the lives of those facing abuses each day instead of squabbling about when to discuss those abuses,” de Rivero said.

To view Human Rights Watch’s statement on minority rights at the March 25 session of the UN Human Rights Council, please click here.

For more of Human Rights Watch’s work on China and Tibet, please click here.

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