Elections in the Netherlands: what the outcome of the Dutch Elections says about the universality of human rights

Demonstration for the rights of refugees in Lausanne, France on 15 September 2015  (cc-by-nc-nd)
Demonstration for the rights of refugees in France on 15 September 2015  (cc-by-nc-nd)

Demonstration for the rights of refugees in France on 15 September 2015 (cc-by-nc-nd)

 

By Arja Oomkens -

 

“Will you consider the rights of children when you vote this week?”

- “Sure! Who are you going to vote for?”

“I don’t have a residence permit, so I’m not allowed to vote.

- “Really, how come? Your Dutch is perfect!”

 

Last week, Anood (22) campaigned for children’s rights before the final debate on the Dutch parliamentary elections in The Hague. Her goal was to encourage young adults to go and vote, and for them to consider their impact on the protection of human rights. She described to passersby her daily reality of feeling Dutch while living in fear of being sent back to Iraq – a country that she has no connection with, because she grew up in the Netherlands. She hoped to engage youngsters to think about the significance of their vote: “Especially during elections, citizens cannot avert their eyes. Every vote makes a difference.”

 

In 2008, Anood fled with her family from Iraq to the Netherlands. Nine years later, she has a high school degree and studies biology in The Netherlands, speaks fluent Dutch, and has built up a large network of friends. And yet, every day Anood wakes up with the possibility of being sent back to Iraq. How is it possible that she still has no residence permit?

 

In 2012, the newly elected members of parliament were posed similar questions. This resulted in arrangements being made for a so-called Child Pardon Act. The aim of this act was to grant residency to children who had resided in the Netherlands for at least five years. For the first months of 2013, this policy worked reasonably effectively. But after May 2013, the criteria became so strict that hitherto 95% of children’s applications have been rejected.

 

The main reason for rejection is the fact that the legal status of children depends on the actions (or inactions) of their parents or guardians. For example, children who apply for the Child Pardon Act are rejected if their parents do not “cooperate” with the authorities by leaving the Netherlands. When parents are awaiting appeal in their own asylum-procedure, they are expected to leave the Netherlands during this period, and take their children with them. For this reason, the Child Pardon Act did not offer a solution to Anood, and more than thousand other children. These children are punished based on the unreasonable criteria their parents have to fulfill.

 

The Child Pardon Act is an illustrative example of the overly strict and inadequate immigration law and policy in the Netherlands. Being too restrictive, it unfairly excludes children who have resided in the Netherlands for over five years, leaving them with no clear future perspective.

 

It also illustrates how political (and public) support for the rights of refugees, and in effect human rights, has eroded over the past few years in the Netherlands. The outcome of last week’s elections confirms this. Despite Anood’s plea, the results show that the majority of Dutch citizens did not vote for the universality of human rights. For various reasons, many Dutch citizens see their own rights eroding and are inclined to vote for right wing parties that promise their protection. While Prime Minister Mark Rutte made some highly controversial statements during his election campaign, his political party still became the largest in parliament. In his most widespread election-statement, a letter to “all Dutch citizens,” Rutte stated: people “who come to our country […] misuse our freedom and spoil everything” must either “behave normally, or go away.”

 

This normalization of the use of discriminatory language is a cause for concern. By alluding to immigrants in his election-statement, Prime Minister Rutte generalizes all immigrants as belonging to the same group, blaming them for all sorts of disturbances in Dutch society. First of all, from a legal perspective, this is problematic since the protection of human dignity and non-discrimination are considered universal and fundamental in European and international law, whereas Rutte implies that such rights are rather relative. Second, the normalization of such discriminatory language has great implications on a societal level, as it constructs and reinforces a social hierarchy between people, and groups of people, and furthers polarization. In the run up to the elections, Dutch-Moroccan producer Abdelkarim El-Fassi pointed out how he experiences this polarization on a personal level. While he grew up in the Netherlands and has always been open-minded, the current political debate makes him want to withdraw into the Dutch-Moroccan community.

 

To create space for understanding individual situations, such as the situation of Anood and her family, steps must be taken to condemn the normalization of discriminatory language. One option is via legal avenues, such as the Dutch court that found far-right leader Geert Wilders guilty of inciting discrimination against Dutch Moroccans – although this arguably worked out to his advantage. Therefore, most importantly, discriminatory language must be condemned by public opinion. A first step in this direction is to engage in personal contact. In doing so, individuals and groups move closer to each other, and towards a more cohesive society – as a recent study by Dutch news website De Correspondent aptly illustrates. Through an open and active attitude of Dutch residents, and by having voices like Anoods be heard – as well as the many other diverse voices of people in similar situations in the Netherlands – it becomes easier to sympathize with one another.

 

“Citizens cannot avert their eyes,” Anood said during the election campaign. When open communication and condemnation of discriminatory language becomes the norm, there is no need to fear for the devaluation of human rights as universal values. As the conversation between Anood and a man on the street in The Hague shows, there is a great discrepancy between the urgency of the plight of refugee and immigrant children in The Netherlands and a general understanding of their situation. Because of the open conversation Anood initiated there in The Hague, this man can put a face and voice together with a clear example of the inadequacies of Dutch immigration policy. But not all people in situations like Anood’s are fluent in Dutch or have a platform to tell their stories. Hopefully, her example can serve as an opportunity to open up the debate; to move beyond the current rhetoric, and inform people of the restrictive immigration policies enforced throughout the country on people like Anood, who have as much right to be here as any other Dutch person.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Populist rivalry: Trump’s impact on the future and politics of Israel

Trump_CPAC_2011

 

Trump_CPAC_2011

 Trump speaking at CPAC 2011 (creative commons).

 

By Laurien Vastenhout

 

After a period of disbelief and evasive responses, the world now has to face that Donald Trump is President of the United States. To the extent possible, Trump’s measured victory speech in November was ‘hopeful’; at least his tone had softened somewhat. It was not unthinkable that he had played a harsh election campaign, but in practice would be more appeasing. These were encouraging signs. However, the interview with the UK’s Times and the German tabloid Bild last week indicated that there was no moderation after all. With Trump’s support of the UK’s ‘hard’ Brexit, and China’s president Xi Jinping’s announcement to protect the world’s economy against Trump, it seems that the entire world politics and economy is about to change over the course of the coming months and years. One of the crucial topics that has to be examined in this context is the everlasting conflict between Israel and Palestine in the Middle East and the role of the United States herein. A friend and true (financial) supporter of Israel for many years, Trump is about to break with the decades of cautious US policy vis-à-vis the conflict. What can we expect from the Trump administration in the Middle East? And is Benjamin Netanyahu, current Prime-minister of Israel and chairman of the right-wing Likud Party indeed as happy with the Trump’s support as it seemed in his tweet of December, 28 2016, in which he thanked Trump for the warm friendship and clear-cut  support for Israel? This article seeks to create insight in the multiple dangers that lie ahead.

 

There are two individuals Trump nominated on central positions who we should investigate more closely: David Friedman, appointed ambassador to Israel, and his son-in-law Jared Kushner. Friedman is a pro-Israel hardliner, and strongly opposes the two-state solution. Being part of Trump’s advisory team, David Friedman co-authored a 16-point action plan in November last year in which his views on the difficult situation in Israel/Palestine are outlined. The Trump administration will ensure that ‘Israel receives maximum military, strategic and tactical cooperation from the United States’, the plan stated. Between the lines, one can read the rejection of the apparent ‘anti-Israel’ attitude of the United Nation (UN) members– see the recent United States Security Council resolution from which the US abstained –  and a strong support for an undivided Jerusalem capital. The latter is a highly sensitive topic as Palestine seeks to maintain the Eastern part of Jerusalem as future capital of Palestine, while Israel believes all of Jerusalem should belong to their country. The attempted relocation of the Main Office of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem therefore is an important indicator of the political line chosen by the Trump administration. Moreover, Friedman is president of the American Friends of Beit El, which supports Israeli hardline settlement movements and believes that Israel is legally entitled to annex the West Bank.

 

Trump’s son-in law Jared Kushner, who is appointed to orchestrate a deal between Israel and Palestine has no experience with politics in the Middle East at all. Although, as an orthodox Jew, he is undoubtedly concerned with the area, his complete unfamiliarity with both Israeli and Palestinian politicians is disquieting. Kusner’s links to a far-right Jewish settlement in the West Bank, to which he donated money, are not very promising either. Clearly, the settler movement will have solid backing in Trump’s administration. Palestinians and their allies have repeatedly called on the UN to force Israel to stop with the settlements as it causes hindrance to serious negotiations. As a result, one of Trump’s major political goals, to reach an agreement in the ongoing conflict, seems a utopian line of thought. All of these difficulties, added to his wish to pull out of the nuclear pact signed with Iran in 2016, raise concern about the position of Arab countries of the Middle East.

 

Ironically, Trump’s presidency does not only raise difficulties for Arab countries and Palestine in particular; Benjamin Netanyahu might in fact be not so happy with Trump’s involvement in the region either. Netanyahu’s policies on the settlements in the West Bank over the past years can be characterised by ambiguity and delay. By pretending to keep a two-state solution alive, Netanyahu has often safeguarded the support of the United Stated for himself at the cost of more right-wing politicians. Now important positions in the Trump-administration are taken by pro-settler politicians, this tactic has become ineffectual. Haaretz columnist Chemi Shalev has somewhat ironically indicated that Trump is in fact making Netanyahu seem a ‘left wing defeatist’. In practice, this means that Netanyahu’s position is threatened by his far-right Minister of Education and political leader of the extreme right-wing party HaJehoedie (The Jewish Home Party): Naftali Bennett.

 

Bennett has suggested that Trump’s election signals the end of the two-state solution and the attempts to establish a Palestinian state. Obviously, he uses Trump’s to pressure Netanyahu to recognise the settlements as permanent. Through his statements, Bennett has secured the support of the majority of the Jewish settlers. For a right-wing political leader, this support is of key importance. Netanyahu’s recent aggressive response towards the UN resolution to end Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories at the end of 2016, indicates that he feels he has to win back right-wing voters. Both Netanyahu and Bennett are increasingly using right-wing, nationalistic discourse to prevail. In the case of Bennett, it is no secret that he aims to become Prime Minister himself. Not only is this an alarming development in Israeli politics, it also might cause that Jews around the world feel increasingly disconnected with the country. This, in turn, will result in an increasing isolation of the country.

 

The current situation in Israel and the proposed policies of the Trump administration, which do not favour a two-state solution, are thus worrisome. Although supported by the US, Israel will become a lone wolf in world politics due to its increasing hard stance vis-à-vis settlements in the West Bank. Both internal and external forces ensure that a solution to the long-standing conflict seems further away than ever, despite Trump’s genuine believe that his administration will broker an agreement. Bennett’s recent declaration that he will propose a bill to extent Israeli sovereignty to Maale Adumin, the third-large Jewish settlement in the West Bank, shows that a first major step has already been taken. The coming weeks and months we will have to wait and see how US policies unfold in the region. Without doubt, Maale Adumin will be the first test case and major determinant of America’s policies in the Middle East.

Victims and reparations at the ICC

midden logo icc

Logo of the International Criminal Court

 

By Amani Chibashimba (guest writer) -

The International Criminal Court (ICC) was created by the Rome Statute of 1998 in a way to conclude the efforts that have been made to fight international criminality since the end of the Second World War. Its creation is considered to be a success as it derived from a diplomatic agreement between States, which differs from its predecessors, the International Criminal Tribunals (for the ex-Yugoslavia and Rwanda), which were ‘imposed’ by the United Nations. The ICC has jurisdiction over the gravest breach of international law, namely the crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. Since it was established by an agreement between states, it does not have a police force and counts on the cooperation of member states to arrest the accused.

In its efforts to fight international criminality, the ICC has brought many new notions that are very likely to influence the development of international criminal justice and international law. The most interesting innovation though, would be the reparation for victims. This notion is framed in the Rome Statute in a very distinct way, as individuals are going to be obliged to provide reparations to victims, following their sentencing, as provided by article 75(2):

The Court may make an order directly against a convicted person specifying appropriate reparation to, or in respect of, victims, including restitution, compensation and rehabilitation

The challenges of the enforcement of the notion of reparation will be the purpose of this article. In international law, the notion of reparation is not new, but the individuation of the reparation will be quite an innovation. International law recognizes mainly the notion of reparation by states. This has been implemented in several cases, where states were to provide reparation following a judgment in which the states misdeed was proven by law. At the ICC only individuals are judged, therefore the ICC reparation will be imposed following the conviction of an accused individual. Reparation is thus linked to individual criminal liability. The first two convictions at the ICC in the cases of Lubanga (December 2014) and Katanga (May 2014) – both related to the situation in Congo – gave the ICC the opportunity to implement Article 75 for the first time.

On the 7th August 2012 Trial Chamber I of the ICC issued a decision in the case against Thomas Lubanga for the first time on the principles that would be applied to reparations for victims. Here, two challenges were already deplorable: Mr. Lubanga was declared bankrupt and individual reparation for his victims was impossible to conceive. Lubanga was convicted for conscripting and enlisting children under the age of 15 in armed groups and using them to participate actively in hostilities. He was accused to have done this in the district of Ituri, meaning we have countless potential victims from whom to draw those eligible for reparation. Since it was not possible to award individual reparation, it was decided that collective reparation should be awarded by creating activities that would be beneficial for the victims. On 3rd March 2015, the Appeal Chamber issued its final decision on this matter and decided that the Trust Fund for Victims (TFV) should present a draft for collective reparation in this case.

The Courts TFV has been involved in collective assistance projects related to child soldiers in the DRC. When the final decision will be issued, it will be most definitely drawn from those existing projects. Also for this case, since Lubanga is not financially able to provide reparation for its countless victims, the Court has decided that the TFV should be the one presenting a plan for reparation. However, we should be aware that neither the Rome Statute, nor the Rules of Procedure and Evidence (RPE), nor the TFV Regulation mention that the TFV should be a substitute body tasked to provide reparation for a convicted person declared bankrupt by the Court. Nevertheless, TFV regulation 42 states that the resources of the Trust Fund shall be for the benefit of the victims of crimes within the jurisdiction of the Court…”, this is why it was admissible for the Court to order the TFV to act as a substitute body and repair the victims of Mr. Lubanga.

On 27th August 2014, the Courts Trial Chamber II issued an order to the Registry to report on applications for reparation for the case against Germain Katanga, the second case. Unlike Lubanga, Katanga was convicted for crimes committed in a specific village (Bogoro) on a specific day (24th February 2003). Awarding reparation for this case will be dependent on those two elements. In 2003, some 364 victims were recognized to participate in the trial for the Katanga case. These are supposed to be people who have suffered acts for which Katanga was accused, meaning they have suffered from the attack which happened in the village of Bogoro in the morning of the 24th February 2003.

It is important to remember that Mr. Katanga was convicted for much less acts than he was charged. His charges included: willful killing, murder, directing an attack against a civilian population as such, destruction of property, pillage, using children under the age of 15 to participate actively in hostilities, sexual slavery, and rape. However, in his conviction, only four charges were retained: as an accessory for murder (as a crime against humanity and as a war crime), attack against a civilian population as such, destruction of enemys property, and pillaging. This means that not all the victims who participated in the proceedings as witnesses for the crimes he was charged with, will be included in the reparation process. This applies, for example, to women who were raped or enslaved following the attack of Bogoro village.

Looking at these two cases and thinking of what the reparation scheme is going to be, one can see already some challenging aspects which will come out in time of actually awarding reparations or implementing those decisions. We should keep in mind the nature of the crimes and their impact on the victims as well as the essence and meaning of the intended reparation. Despite the fact that the victims in both cases are entitled to reparation, it will be hard to apply the same rules in both situations, as the circumstances in both cases are fundamentally different. However, the reparations will depend on the same three key elements: conviction; definition of beneficiary, and applicability of the principles provided for by the Rome Statute and RPE.

Concerning the conviction in the case of Katanga, it is likely that there will be a lot of frustration as many victims will be excluded from the reparation process because the crimes for which they were victimized were not part of the conviction. It will be challenging to explain to a woman who was raped on the 24th February 2003 during the attack of Bogoro, that she is not a suitable’ victim for this case because the prosecutor did not prove his case beyond reasonable doubt. Does this mean they are not victims? How to recognize their victimhood? This is likely to influence the very essence of reparation and the perception of justice the Court has been striving for. Concerning the definition of victimwho will benefit from reparation, this will be very narrow. In the case of Katanga, only those inhabitants of Bogoro (or strangers who happened to be present there on the morning of the 24th February 2003) who suffered an injury (physical, moral or material) due to the misdeed of Mr. Katanga, shall be considered. However, proving that you were in the village that day will prove to be challenging, especially because everybody fled, some for good, some to return only after many years.

The case against Lubanga opens another practical question: who are victims? Lubanga was convicted for conscripting children in the whole district of Ituri, in which large number of people live. In addition, he committed this crime more than a decade ago, which makes it less likely for the victims to come forward now. Overall, it will be challenging to apply the principles, as laid down in the Statute and the RPE, to actual cases. With regard to, for example, the indigence of the defendants, adjustments must be made. The main reason why those rules have to be laid down is, to my opinion, to make sure that they lay down the path for the development of more adequate and inclusive principles. They should then be flexible.

The final decisions on the reparation for both cases are still pending. It will be interesting to see if there will be similarities between the two very different cases when it comes to applying those principles of reparation. We have already witnessed some of the shortcomings, namely the insolvency of the defendant, the enormous amount of destruction to be repaired, or the huge number of concerned victims. The challenge will be for the ICC to provide for a reparation scheme which will reinforce its legitimacy. Adding to its already controversial review, another failure in the form of ill-placed or unsatisfactory reparations will only serve to decrease its consideration and question its legitimacy.

The Age of Apology: What Brandt’s Genuflection Can Tell About the Potential of Our Apologies

05_10_kniefall_brandt

 

Willy Brandt’s Kniefall. © ullstein bild/ Sven Simon

By Renate Vink (guest writer) – 

 

We are all sometimes waiting for a ‘sorry’. In our world of conflicts, historical wounds and complexities, it seems hard to overcome the legacies of conflict from our past. How to break these spirals of revenge, anger, and shame over past injustices? Authentic, spontaneous, well-prepared or not; in our current so-called age of apology it appears that apologies or reparations are increasingly becoming the norm for addressing historical injustices. Although political apologies are nothing new, their use in Western politics seems to have increased over the last few decades. Northern Ireland, Australia, Canada; throughout all levels of politics – be it in local, national or international politics – we can find the use of apologies or reparations to address the black pages in history in order to move on.

However the potential for these apologies, what value can they really hold in the tough environment of (the aftermath of) conflict? Can states, as an entity, actually practice forgiveness? Although the direct effect of an apology is very hard to measure, symbolically it can be a very powerful tool. But could it indeed provide a way to ‘solve’ the past – and prepare for reconciliation to take place? Or should we look at it with cynicism and dismiss its potential? As only time can teach us, we can learn a lot from one of the earliest examples of a public apology in our age, as shown by the German Chancellor Willy Brandt in Warsaw, 1970. As Brandt spontaneously fell to his knees in front of the Holocaust memorial, his Warschauer Kniefall marked the beginning of the current ‘wave of apologies’ sweeping over (international) politics.

 

Der Kanzler hat gekniet

On his knees, Chancellor Willy Brandt showed the world in 1970 what forgiveness and facing the past could look like. The almost Christ-like image of Brandt on his knees in front of a memorial for the Jewish Uprising in 1943 was never planned and Brandt himself left only few words on his motivation. ‘Unter der Last der jungsten Geschichte tat ich, was Menschen tun, wenn die Worte versagen. So gedachte ich Millionen Ermordete.’ (Under the weight of recent history, I did what people do when words fall short. This is how I remembered the millions of victims.)

Brandt had come to Warsaw as part of his Ostpolitik, which aimed at normalizing relations with Poland and signing the Treaty of Warsaw – and as a first official German visit since the war. When Brandt suddenly knelt down and in silence asked forgiveness for the wrongs of his nation – he set the tone for a Germany ‘which required that Nazism be remembered rather than forgotten’, according to historian Tony Judt. In other words, one of the first German steps towards facing its past.

It was the raw and uncomfortable version of what would later become a highly popular and much praised symbol of German Vergangenheitsbewältigung and provided an image of how Germany collectively faced its past. Der Spiegel reports after the event; ‘Dann bekent er sich zu einer Schuld, an der er selber nicht zu tragen hat, und bittet um eine Vergebung, derer er selber nicht bedarf. Dann kniet er da fuer Deutschland.’ (Then he commits himself to a debt, which he himself is not carrying, and asks for forgiveness, which he himself does not need. Then he kneels down for Germany.)

Although Brandt’s gesture today is literally set in stone, the response to his ‘silent apology’ has not always been positive. Apart from a few voices saying otherwise – the majority of Germans in 1970 found the Warschauer Kniefall exaggerated. Phrases such as ‘Wir liefern uns den Kommunisten aus’ (We are handing ourselves over to the communists) and listing Brandt as a ‘Verraeter’ (traitor) were no exception in the German press after December 10th, 1970. This is, however, not completely surprising, since Brandt’s Ostpolitik was heavily criticized in his homeland. In general, relatively little attention has been given to the Kniefall in the German press around 1970 – as it happened in the shadow of the signing of the Treaty of Warsaw, which was controversial enough in Germany at the time in light of the fate of millions of German Heimatvertriebenen.

‘Er kniete auch fuer uns’, headlines Die Zeit in December 2010, when the 40th anniversary of the Warschauer Kniefall is celebrated in the German press. A few decades after the event the critical tone is completely gone and hardly a single negative comment is written on Brandt’s Kniefall. Headlines such as ‘Eine Kniefall macht Geschichte’ (the gesture that made history) and ‘Willy Brandt’s Kniefall ist zur Ikone geworden’ (the gesture that became an icon) underline this dramatic change and stress the sense of uniqueness that comes with the image of the gesture nowadays. ‘Die Kraft der Demut’ is another title illustrating the change in the media from the Kniefall being a humiliating gesture on enemy ground into a symbol that stands for power and courage, an icon within 20th century German political history even speaking of a collective nation on its knees. One could say it is the childlike simplicity of the image, the complex history it was able to summarize in one picture and the room for interpretation it left that added to the popularity of the image in the media over the years.

The radical change in meaning and interpretation of the Warschauer Kniefall over 40 years can be explained by a combination of two factors. Firstly, the German unification and the end of the Cold War allowed for a different way of looking at historical events without the context and influence of uneasy East-West relations. Secondly, new developments of facing the role and place of the Holocaust as part of German history had taken place over the years, leading from a place of collective ignorance and amnesia towards acceptance and memorialization, almost at mass scale - read more about post-war ignorance of the Nazi atrocities in this article by Laurien Vastenhout and Marieke Zoodsma. A renewed and more glorified interpretation of the Kniefall as the result.

Certainly these developments help us understand the process of image iconization, and how it allowed for the German public to reconsider its initial interpretation of their leader on his knees. However, perhaps most relevant within today’s age of apology is to look at the growing popularity of the Kniefall through the lens of politics of redress – a form of politics focused on making amends as a way of dealing with our dark past. This is often practiced through public apologies and showing remorse for the past, but also through making financial or material reparations.

Examples of recent apologies in international politics include British prime-minister Cameron officially apologizing for the role of the British army on Bloody Sunday in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. As with Brandt’s Kniefall, we see a political leader apologizing for the injustice caused by his nation in the past, even though he was not personally involved in the wrongdoings. Another example is the Canadian official apology towards survivors and descendants of the residential schools, which lasted over a long period from 1840-1990s. A similar public apology was issued in Australia in 2008, when prime minister Rudd apologized for the history of the ‘stolen generations’ in a well prepared speech and event in front of the entire nation. Furthermore, the mere fact that we live in an age of apology is marked by the very existence of the ‘truth and reconciliation commission’ in South Africa, which dealt with the wrongdoings from the Apartheid regime.

The fact that there is such an increase in issued apologies within Western politics since the 1990s and that they are valued nowadays as a sign of respectability can be explained by the slow shift from Realpolitik, a form of ‘hard’ diplomacy based on given factors and circumstances rather than ideological or ethical reasoning, towards a more emotional and ethical kind of politics over the last few decades. It reflects an increasing willingness to meet certain criteria of moral respectability within politics. However, despite the commonality of public apologies, and the fact that they are sometimes even in demand – how seriously should we treat them? Are they merely an act of self-reflection, or indeed a valid potential for reconciliation? Surely, it is difficult to generalize on the effect of apologies – and it would be too early to draw conclusions on the effect and outcomes of today’s reparations. Nevertheless, what the Warschauer Kniefall teaches is that we cannot simply dismiss the value and potential of such gestures or apologies by merely looking at our current (political) circumstances. Even though heavily criticized in 1970, the meaning of the Kniefall changed as history was reinterpreted over the years – and thus we can only start to understand the value and true impact of apologies and other forms of reparations by looking back.

Therefore, time will tell if our apologies today have the potential to heal old wounds and if we can indeed overcome the ugly parts of our history through our public outings of remorse today. But as long as the Kniefall is able to tell the story of how a small, quiet and humbling gesture has the ability to grow into a meaningful symbol of forgiveness, able to re-direct the course of history, it will most likely continue to inspire other leaders and their nations to show remorse for the past – in the future.

The Voice of an Ignored Community. The Tibetan Government in Exile

KL Lau/Drepung Monatery (CC BY-NC-ND)

 

KL Lau/Drepung Monatery (CC BY-NC-ND)

KL Lau/Drepung Monatery (CC BY-NC-ND)

 

By Sarah Weber (guest writer) – 

It is now almost seventy years ago that China annexed Tibet and ever since the Tibetans have suffered repression, injustice and loss of individual freedom. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) invaded Tibet in 1950, referring to it as the “peaceful liberation of Tibet”. Initially, the PRC granted national regional autonomy and cultural freedom. The seventeen point agreement, the document that is seen to affirm Chinese sovereignty over Tibet, guaranteed that the existing political system and the authority of the Dalai Lama would not be altered. In reality, Tibet’s whole structure has changed and in fact a slow cultural genocide is taking place.

Today, Tibetans are confronted with forced assimilation and the destruction of their cultural heritage. Those who demand independence or oppose the Chinese rule are arrested, tortured and given long prison terms on charges of Disturbing National Security. Moreover, the Chinese government encourages a large number of ethnic Han Chinese immigrants to settle in Tibet, reducing the Tibetans to a minority in their own country. This in turn leads to an economic marginalization; 70% of business in the capital, Lhasa, are now owned or run by ethnic Chinese. In schools, the Tibetan language has been severely restricted and Tibetan textbooks replaced by Chinese ones.

Regarding the religious infrastructure, the Cultural Revolution has caused the destruction of over 6000 monasteries and religious institutions, equating to 95% of the overall total. Only a few monasteries are left and they function more as tourist attractions than spiritual centers. On top of that, since the occupation, an estimated number of 1.2 Million Tibetans have been killed in labour camps and prisons and around 130,000 live in exile today. 6 Million Tibetans still live inside Tibet.

It seems that the international community has abandoned its outspoken commitment to human rights in the case of Tibet and hardly any country’s leadership is willing to oppose China. Gains in commerce and trade are considered far more important than the cessation of human rights violations or preservation of an ancient culture. For the Tibetans, however, the issue is pressing and whether they live in exile or not, it is of utmost importance that there is a movement that protects the struggle for freedom, the culture and its people.

The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, escaped to India on March 10, 1959 followed by some 80.000 Tibetans. Upon arrival, he immediately introduced democratic reforms including the foundation of a government in exile, the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), currently seated in Dharamsala, India. The CTA’s task is to rehabilitate refugees, to protect Tibetan culture and language by promoting an efficient school system and to oversee religious affairs. Additionally, it attempts to draw the attention of the world to the crisis unfolding in Tibet whilst ensuring the continuity of the freedom struggle. The CTA’s ongoing focus on education as a central tenant of the state stands in stark contrast to the worldwide trend of shrinking the welfare state and demonstrates its commitment to social values. The CTA is composed of seven different departments representing priorities of the Tibetan community at large namely Religion & Culture, Home, Finance, Education, Security, Information & International Relations and Health.

Next to a popularly elected prime minister and a parliament of 43 members, this government includes a judiciary. The highest judicial authority in the exile community is the “Tibetan Supreme Justice Commission”. The Commission is responsible for adjudicating civil disputes within the community but does not handle criminal cases, as this is recognized as the preserve of host governments. The function of the CTA is governed by a constitution, “The Charter of Tibetans in Exile”. The charter ensures a clear separation of power among the three branches of government and it professes to adhere to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The prime minister is elected for a period of five years and the next election is due to take place in March 2016.

The CTA’s experiment with modern democracy is a preparation for a future free Tibet. Yet, it is not designed to be the institution that will take power thereafter. The Dalai Lama has announced that the exile government will be dissolved as soon as Tibet attains freedom and that power will be transferred to a transitional government headed by an interim-president for at most two years. Thereafter, power will be handed over to a popularly elected government. 

The challenge of every exile government is to exercise legal power whilst residing in another country and to run a state that effectively does not exist. Any government, whether in exile or not, matters mainly when it is recognized by other governments and a majority of the people it claims to representFor the Tibetans, both inside and outside Tibet, the CTA is recognized as the sole and legitimate representation and the CTA maintains that Tibet is an independent state under unlawful occupation. Yet, the question is whether an exile government can ever be legitimate according to international law. The notion remains a relative concept, as every state can decide who it accepts as a legitimate government. Officially, Tibet is an integral part of China so the government in exile is internationally not considered legitimate, since that would imply a change in the legal status of Tibet. Most countries maintain friendship with China and therefore avoid taking a position in favor of the Tibetan cause for fear of commercial ramifications. So practically, the CTA’s mandate is legally void. Yet, for the Tibetans its existence is essential for survival.

The establishment of the CTA is a rather unique example in the history of statesmanship. The Dalai Lama had to convince Tibetans to accept a democratic administration in which he would no longer be the head of state, as was traditionally his role. Step by step, he ceded power until he eventually stepped down in 2001. Compared to other cases, where the head of state clinches on to power, unwilling to step down, even ready to unleash a civil war, the Tibetan democratization process is a particular example as the process has been top-down in contrast to normal democratization processes. Moreover, the mandate of exile governments is mostly temporary and only transitional, often set up for a time of war and for the redevelopments thereafter. The CTA, however, has existed for almost seventy years and can be expected to exist for the indefinite future.

An international community should prioritize the protection of human rights and the prevention of a cultural genocide over economic interests. Unfortunately this is not the case. So even if the CTA is currently not able to influence the situation in Tibet directly, with its work it guarantees that the struggle for existence goes on. It is the voice of a muted people that makes sure that those silenced by circumstance and injustice are given the most basic of rights; a voice to be heard with.