A Papal Apology: the cultural context of a public apology

From the Sister Annette Potvin fonds, PR2010.0475/1
From the Sister Annette Potvin fonds, PR2010.0475/1, Provincial Archives of Alberta

Students at Blue Quills Residential School, Alberta, Canada, 1940. From the Sister Annette Potvin fonds, PR2010.0475/1, Provincial Archives of Alberta

 

By Marieke Zoodsma –

 

Not only President Trump took the opportunity of the G7 summit in Italy to meet the highest leader of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis. Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, also met with the pontiff in the Vatican last week where they, according to the Vatican Press Office, talked about themes of integration and reconciliation. That the pope and the Canadian PM discuss such topics during a meeting is not coincidental: the Catholic Church played an important role in the Canadian residential school system that abused indigenous children for over a century. The legacy of this residential school system is one of the major obstacles for reconciliation between Canada and its Indigenous communities. Thus, as part of moving forward in the reconciliation process, Trudeau came to Vatican to ask for one thing: an official apology from the Catholic Church.

 

The Canadian residential schools were part of the Indian Act, set up by the Canadian government in the 1880s, and mandated education for indigenous children. This education would take place in boarding schools, away from the children’s homes, and would subject them to forced conversion and abuse. The system was based on the assumption that indigenous spirituality and communities were inferior and unequal, captured in the infamous phrase “to kill the Indian in the child” – a policy that has been argued to constitute cultural genocide. The last residential school closed in 1996.

 

These schools were often set up in partnership with the Church. In the 1930s, some 80 residential schools were operating across the country, of which 44 were run by Roman Catholics, 21 by the Church of England (now the Anglican Church of Canada), 13 by the United Church of Canada, and 2 by Presbyterians. The crucial role of the Church in this schooling system has been thoroughly examined by the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where one of the most important outcomes was that a formal papal apology is necessary for genuine reconciliation to move forward (TRC Report – Call to Action paragraph 58). Former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper officially apologized in name of the Canadian government in 2008. From the 1990s onwards, the Anglican, Presbyterian and United churches have issued, through a moderate who spoke for the whole Church, a formal apology. One article on the matter of the papal apology read: “Formal apologies have also been made by the Anglican, Presbyterian and United churches, which also ran some of the schools. The previous pontiff, Pope Benedict, met with survivor of the system Phil Fontaine in 2009, but did not formally apologize. Instead, he shared his ‘sorrow’ and ‘sympathy’.”

 

This is where the interesting twist lies: what does it exactly mean to formally, officially and publicly apologize? Are there certain rules that it should abide by, and are these universally accepted? Many scholars argue that a ‘correct’ apology should consist of several factors: an acknowledgment of wrongdoing, the acceptance of responsibility, an expression of remorse, the promise of non-repetition, and the apology needs to be sincere. However, this assumes a check-list approach to political apologies – an approach that can be seen to decontextualize the phenomenon. An apology is a social performance that is aimed to restore a temporarily broken relationship – in the case of political apologies that between the perpetrator state and the victims –, a relationship that is broken through the violation of a shared moral code. This shared moral code (the norms and values of a culture), the social relationship (intergroup contact) that is violated, and the social performance (an apology) are all culturally and situationally grounded concepts. In other words: whether or not an apology can be – or is – successful, depends on the cultural context. Is it even possible for a head of state to sincerely apologize, and what form does this take within different communities? What is the framing of the apology; who is the spokesperson (actor), what is the setting (stage), what are the exact words used (content)?

 

It is intriguing that one of the most powerful and famous apologies that has been offered in our so-called age of apology does not contain any words: the genuflection of the German Chancellor Willy Brandt in 1970. The Kniefall of the German chancellor at the memorial for the Jewish Uprising in Warsaw was the first symbolic public representation of German guilt and opened the way for new forms of collective remembrance. It was a gestural social performance that expressed a feeling of remorse, repentance, and acknowledged Germany’s past as a perpetrator. Our guest writer Renate Vink argued in her article: “… 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”. To understand the salient impact of the Kniefall, the cultural meaning attributed to this non-verbal performance needs to be taken into account. Such a gesture might not work in a different situation, with different actors, and in a different culture.

 

The report of the TRC reads: “An official apology constitutes a public admission that acceptable societal norms and values have been violated and that, as a result, civic trust has been broken.” An acknowledgment of past suffering by the highest leader of the Catholic church can be an important driving force for reconciliation on a social and cultural level – once offered to meet the criteria of the Indigenous culture. It is therefore that Trudeau specifically asked the pope to come to Canada to offer his apology in name of the church. Indigenous people document their histories through oral-based tradition, including the official recording of apologies made in order to rectify suffering. If the Vatican is honest and willing to transform its relationship with Canada’s indigenous people and to come to terms with the dark pages of its past, the church must understand and respect the Indigenous people’s own concepts of reconciliation.

 

Longing for a Lost Ideal: The Historic Struggle for Jerusalem’s Temple Mount

Dome of the Rock

 

Dome of the Rock

Dome of the Rock, April 2017. Picture by Laurien Vastenhout

 

By Laurien Vastenhout

 

During last month’s Pesach, tensions raised in the Old City of Jerusalem, Israel. Religious Jews had sacrificed a lamb close to the Temple Mount, an area administered by a Muslim religious trust. A few weeks before, the Israeli High Court had upheld the police decision to block a Passover reenactment on the archeological site close to the Temple Mount. Instead, the group was allowed to have the ceremony at the heart of the Jewish Quarter, outside the Hurva Synagogue, only a few hundred meters way from the Temple Mount. Despite some setbacks– the electricity went out for more than two hours, no famous rabbis attended, and the priests ‘ran out’ of blood from the lamb even before they reached the specially prepared vessels – the activists still rejoiced. This was the first time the reenactment had taken place so close to the Temple Mount. At the end of the same month during Yom HaShoah. Jewish Temple Mount activists hung a protest placard at the entrance to the Temple Mount, protesting against its closure to Jews on Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Day. This article examines why the Temple Mount continues to be a recurring source for controversy and struggle, both to Jews and Muslims.

 

Wandering around the area of the Temple Mount and the Western Wall, one can find Jews who are collecting money for ‘the reconstruction of the Temple’. After they have donated money, tourists receive a small red bracelet in return. However, it seems as if many of these tourists do now know that a reconstruction of the Temple unequivocally means that the Dome of the Rock, the Islamic shrine with its characteristic golden cupola, has to be removed first. The Dome of the Rock dates from the 7th century when Caliph Abd al-Malik erected the glorious octagonal building (by then not yet capped by the golden dome). The building is said to house the rock on which Abraham bound Isaac for sacrifice. Also, this was the place where the prophet Mohammed rose from the earth on a winged steed to meet Abraham, Moses and Jesus in heaven. The rock, as the story goes, wanted to follow, but as Mohammed pushed it back to earth, he left a footprint on it which is still to be seen today.

 

The construction of the Islamic shrine followed centuries of power struggles within the city between, amongst others, Christians, Romans, Jews and Ottoman Muslims. On the exact same place, Herod’s Temple had been standing centuries before, which in turn had replaced the First Temple, Salomon’s Temple. Salomon’s Temple had been destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. In 70 C.E. Herod’s ‘second’ Temple*, by then the largest and most awe-inspiring religious monument in the world – glittering with gold and shining white stone –, was destroyed by Titus, the Roman Supreme Military Commander. After two destructions, the Temple would never be resurrected again. To Jews, similar to Muslims, the site is a Holy place. Inside the first Temple, in Holy of Holies, the Ark of the Covenant was located, constructed during the Israelites’ wandering in the Sinaï desert and an important symbol of the Jewish faith. The Ark symbolises the only physical manifestation of God on earth as its construction had been commanded by God to Moses. Although the contents of the Ark have been debated, there is a general consensus that it contained the tablets with the Ten Commandments. To Jews, the Temple is therefore much more than just a building. As a result, the last destruction in 70 C.E. has incited an unprecedented sense of longing and feeling of religious loss.

 

The destruction of the last Temple has become a symbol of human search for a lost ideal. The rituals that have taken place at this site are recorded in an extraordinary level of detail and show the religious importance and centrality of the site. No wonder that the capture of Jerusalem during the Six-Day-War in 1967 and the subsequent capture of the Temple Mount by the Israelis aroused feelings of excitement. Up until then, the site had been ‘lost’ to the Jews. At the end of this war, Israeli Minister of Defence Moshe Dayan proclaimed that the Israeli government wanted to preserve religious freedom for all faiths in Jerusalem, handing over administrative control of the Temple Mount compound to the Jordanian Waqf – a Jordanian appointed Islamic body – while the overall security of the area was maintained by Israel. Jews could visit the Temple Mount, but were not allowed to have religious services at the site as this is now considered a prayer site for Muslims. This is still the reality today. It should be noted here that Orthodox Jews are not allowed enter the site until the Messias comes **. This is why the Rabbi has forbidden them to enter the site, as a sign at the entrance to the Mount indicates. This clearly illustrates the different ways in which the Temple Mount is approached by various Jewish groups in Israeli society.

 

Throughout history, the site has incited actions that experts refer to as ‘the Jerusalem Syndrom’ – a religious madness which comes to a head in the shadow of the Temple Mount. In 1969, a non-Jewish Australian tourist set fire to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, situated on the Temple Mount, claiming he was ‘the Lord’s Missionary’. In 1982, an Israeli soldier went on a shooting rampage in the Al-Aqsa mosque because he hoped to become King of the Jews by liberating the spot. The recent actions can be seen in this light as well – extremist groups try to enlarge their authority on the site and feel it is their right to use the site as a place of religious enactment and remembrance. Despite, or because of, their perseverance, rules at the Temple Mount are strict and seem to have become even stricter over the past years – one is not allowed to bring any religious objects to the site, nor to pray on the Temple Mount.

 

The longing for the lost Temple has resulted in the establishment of Talmud Schools, where scholars are being trained in the rituals of priesthood in case a new Temple is built. Some Rabbis also claim they know the whereabouts of the Ark of the Covenant which was located in the First Temple until its destruction. Although organisations such as the “Jerusalem Temple Foundation” or “the Temple Institute” have been in a constant battle with the state of Israel, the recent acquittal of the youngsters who protested at the closure of the site during Yom Hashoah, might indicate that government policies are shifting.

 

Without doubt, the Temple mount is a symbol that goes to the heart of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Over the past years, the Israeli government has at times closed the entrance to the Temple Mount, claiming that the atmosphere was too tense. In doing so, they withheld Arabs to pray at the site which, in turn, led to serious political tensions and protests. Far more than a physical site, the Temple Mount, on which the Temple itself is ironically absent, has become a spiritual and political site, loaded with meaning. It is a monument of the imagination for the Jews and a the oldest existing religious Islamic monument which is, after Mecca and Medina, the third important religious site to Muslims.

 

*  Depending on whether your count Zerubbabel’s Temple a building in its own right. In 538 BC, Zerubbabel, the leader of the tribe of Judah, was part of the first wave of Jewish captives to return to Jerusalem. He immediately began with the rebuilding of the lost Temple of Solomon. However, he had much fewer resources.  There was a group of Jews in Jerusalem who were rather disappointed with the Temple. To their minds, it did not even begin to compare with the splendor of Solomon’s temple.

** Religious Jews do not consider Jesus as the Messias and are still waiting for the coming of the Messias.

Different Shades of Denial: are the White House and the German far right relativizing the Holocaust?

Auschwitz II-Birkenau, November 2016. Picture by Marieke Zoodsma
Auschwitz II-Birkenau, November 2016. Picture by Marieke Zoodsma

Auschwitz II-Birkenau, November 2016. Picture by Marieke Zoodsma

By Marieke Zoodsma

 

January is an important month for those involved in Holocaust remembrance; the 27th of January, the day that Auschwitz concentration camp was liberated by the Red Army, is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It is a month in which events are organised that involve Holocaust remembrance or topics related to the crimes of the Nazi regime, such as the Nooit Meer Auschwitz lecture in Amsterdam. It is also a month in which politicians engage in public statements regarding (the commemoration of) the Holocaust and the Second World War. However, it is also in the realm of politics where genocide, be it the Holocaust or any other, can become a dangerously fluid, unclear and undefined concept. Lobbyists, activists, and politicians from all different sides of the political spectrum use the term for their own agenda, thereby often (wilfully?) misinterpreting the facts. I will point out two examples.


At a speech in Dresden
on the 17th of January, Björn Höcke, a politician from the German right-wing Alternative for Germany party (AfD), labelled the Berlin Holocaust memorial a ‘monument of shame’. Höcke, a former history teacher, said; “Until now, our mental state continues to be that of a totally defeated people. We Germans are the only people in the world that have planted a monument of shame in the heart of their capital.”. General outrage from within as well as outside Germany followed as Höcke was being condemned for his statement as being anti-Semitic and a demagogue. One way or another, it is highly questionable if a political figure should engage in such inflammatory comments on (the remembrance of) a not-so-long-ago history. Perhaps his political agenda guided him otherwise.


The United States White House commemorated International Holocaust Remembrance Day with a statement. The statement reads: “It is with a heavy heart and somber mind that we remember and honor the victims, survivors, heroes of the Holocaust. It is impossible to fully fathom the depravity and horror inflicted on innocent people by Nazi terror.”. Here too the statement was followed by astonishment since it did not include Jews, Judaism or antisemitism. Jonathan Freedlander commented in The Guardian: “The Nazis were broad in their hatred, targeting Roma, gay people and disabled people, as well as socialists, communists and many others. But any full account of that period begins with the recognition that Jews were singled out for total eradication.”. According to professor Deborah Lipstadt, whose story on Holocaust denial is intriguingly depicted in the film Denial, it is a form of classic “softcore denial” of the Holocaust. According to Lipstadt, the statement is not necessarily denying the facts but it minimizes them; arguing that the Jews as a group were not particularly targeted for destruction. This way, the Holocaust is de-Judaized.


Denial comes in many shapes and forms. The deaths in a genocide can for instance be rationalized as a result of an ‘age old conflict’ (as the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić did during the Bosnian war), or the statistics can be questioned or minimized. A common form of denial, especially among lawyers and politicians, is the claim that what is going on is not genocide. It is a definitional argument of which the United States State Department employees were fully aware when they drafted a memo in May 1994 (during the Rwandan genocide) saying; “Be careful … Genocide finding could commit U.S.G. to actually ‘do something’”. Different actors can deny certain things from having happened, from individual politicians to states – such as Turkey denying the Armenian genocide.


In the described statements, Holocaust denial or not, politicians are venturing out onto a slippery slope. Where the German politician Höcke can be said to trivialize the remembrance of the Holocaust, the United States government is minimizing the suffering of the Jews in the Holocaust. As with many historical events – and perhaps especially commemorations – the Holocaust is being used for political agendas. Höcke, in the face of the refugee crisis and the recent terrorist attack in Berlin, might want to construct the image of a unified glorious German people to build on a better and brighter future instead of a defeated people with a shameful past. The motives for the United States might be focussed on combating the Jews “special pleading” over the Holocaust.


The sociologist Stanley Cohen offers an interesting perspective in his influential work States of Denial (2001). Trying to answer the question “how could people simultaneously know and not know about certain matters?”, Cohen argues that there seem to be “states of mind, or even whole cultures, in which we know and we don’t know at the same time”. The language that was being used during the extermination process is hereby an important aspect. The euphemisms, or language rules, that were deployed in the extermination process made it possible to deny what was actually happening; “the victims of Nazi atrocities were ‘deported’ to ‘work camps’ for ‘special actions’”. The meaning of the Holocaust is hereby simultaneously literally denied and one can thus claim it did not happen – during but also afterwards the genocide itself.


These language rules that are being used to literally deny and thereby reject the actual meaning of the Holocaust sound awkwardly reminiscent to the “alternative facts” (“falsehoods”, or in other words: denying the truth) of the new Trump administration. And we venture out further on that slippery slope…

 

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.

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.