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Tibetans Win Great Support At Habitat II

By Hannah Pearce*

DURING the opening plenary of the United Nations Second conference on Human settlements (Habitat II), held in Turkey from June 4 - 14th 1996 the eminent Turkish speaker not only made a direct reference to Tibet but told his audience of ministers and activitists the world needed to do better research and learn far more about the fate of Tibet, its people and their environment .

Tseten Norbu, President of the Tibetan Youth Congress and member alongside the conference says, "We had no idea such a reference would be made by any speaker, so it was a great surprise when the host countryÌs guest did so in their opening address. Moreover, having mentioned Tibet the audience was asked 'is Tibet here ?'. This was very moving moment because in reply, from the floor of the conference hall, I could tell everyone listening, the Tibetan people were very much in attendance."

The gift of circumstances helped place the Tibet question uppermost in many people's minds at HABITAT II and made it far easier for a very small delegation to promote a broad, sophisticated awareness of how demographic aggression and 'development' activities in Tibet now threaten all aspects of the Tibetan 'habitat'.

A seminar held in the next day by the Office of Tibet, Geneva was well attended as people crowded in to hear a number of speakers address issues such as the present housing situation, the transformation of Lhasa under Chinese 'reconstruction' and the impact of China's population transfer program on commerce, housing and agriculture in Tibet. After a film about the demolition of traditional housing in Lhasa city, Tsering Tsomo,President of the Tibetan Women's Association, presented a report called "Tradition as Best Practice" and talk about the many different impacts of Chinese colonial activity in Tibet. Her audience included many Chinese representatives some of whom started a vigorous argument with other participants when they claimed that "all was well" in Tibet during the ensuing question and answer session.

After this, and the free publicity of the opening plenary, numerous people came to visit the Tibet exhibition stand and solidarity 'Free Tibet' ribbon  -  brought to the event by the Tibetan Rights Campaign (USA), headed by then president Kunzang Yuthok - began to appear on the lapel badges of many people wishing to express their support for the Tibetan cause.

Later at a day long hearing on housing rights violations organized by the Habitat International Coalition - an international NGO based in Geneva - members of the Tibetan delegation showed recent video footage on demolition in Lhasa and presented testimony provided by a monk recently arrived from Tibet in India describing the relentless deterioration in housing conditions for Tibetans.

On June 10th the International Committee of Lawyers for Tibet based in USA ran a workshop to discuss the housing rights situation in Tibet and published a string leaflet for HABITAT II detailing how and why Chinese policies conflict with international conventions governing humans rights and especially housing needs.  Likewise, Free Tibet Campaign (formerly the UK Tibet Support Group) organized a separate workshop focusing on Yamdrok Tso hydroelectric power scheme (see page 36) and detailing the damaging environmental consequences of this project.

The delegation also included representative from Canada Tibet Committee and International Campaign for Tibet (USA) represented by director, John Ackerly as well as Tenzin P. Atisha, representative from Department of Information and International Relations, Dharamsala. Many worked long hours lobbying delegates attending the official UN conference to help ensure that wording relating to "the cultural preservation of old structures' and "foreign occupation' or in some cases "the Tibet question' were inserted into the wording of the final HABITAT II documents.

At the NGO forum Tibetan delegation participated vigorously in a number of workshops and several caucuses, not least those on Values, Youth and Women. Tseten Norbu adds, "We also joined an alliance of NGOs all representing other minority groups and communities living in occupied territories. As a result of this dialogue, a committee was established to help these groups better represent and promote their interests within the UN system. Over the next few years it's hoped all groups active under this alliance will be able to undertake fact finding missions to each other's territories . In most cases, exiles from such places can rarely undertake work of this kind for themselves so using exchanges of this type a report will be prepared detailing conditions in all occupied territories. This will then be used to help win greater attention and action from UN bodies."

China also came to HABITAT II - with a huge delegation (of 30-40 people) and stacks of propaganda. Wherever possible the Chinese tried to disrupt the Tibetan delegation's activities, using every possible occasion to get up and urge Tibetans were there "to spoil the conference".

HABITAT II, however, also coincided with the anniversary of the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square so Tibetans along with several other Asia Pacific NGOs organized a wreath laying ceremony within the conference compound. As Tseten explain, "The turnout was great, and China issued a press statement claiming we Tibetans were providing mis-information." China could do little more than promote their own demise at HABITAT II. In the end some very strong feelings was expressed  to China about its human rights record and from many different parts of the conference. After this the Chinese delegation cancelled all their workshops, presumably for fear of further criticism and poor attendance. As Tseten says, "This was an excellent achievement that more or less speaks for itself."

"In Tibet today the contribution Tibetans might make to the decision about habitat is largely disregarded. We are excluded from the planning process that affect us, we are forcibly evicted from our homes to make room for swell of Chinese immigrants who enter the country under the guidance of Beijing; we are restricted to building of inferior quality with less then adequate facilities while the benefits and conveniences of modern living are predominantly reserved for the Chinese settlers. Old and structurally sound buildings are destroyed for their precious raw materials and to make way for roads wide enough to manoeuver tanks and military vehicles through the streets. Resources are depleted for export to mainland China, land is divided without consultation of the people inhabiting it and inappropriate products are imposed upon the Tibetan people to render them economically dependent on China. The social landscape of Tibet has been reshaped and molded to suit Chinese models of urban living and this no longer meets the needs of the Tibetan people who have been inhabiting it successfully for generations."

From Tradition as Best Practice, a report published by Tibetan Women's Association for at Habitat II. Chinese planing and housing practices in Tibet cannot be considered without first examining the controversial policy tool of population transfer that China has employed in Tibet since 1959, and particularly during the past two decades. The large scale immigration of Chinese settlers to Tibet has profoundly influenced the housing and planning policies employed there. The process of population transfer has altered, perhaps with intended irreversibility, the urban and rural landscape of Tibet.

From Destruction By Design - Housing Rights Violations in Tibet by Scott Leckie, 1994, COHRE, The Netherlands.

It is a common practice for governments to induce population transfer of its own citizens into occupied territories. Such transfers have a marked impact upon the housing sector.... Although often ignored by those exploring the consequences of military occupation, occupying powers routinely use the housing sector to subjugate occupied populations and stifle legitimate aspiration towards self determination.

China's urban planners aim for Lhasa to have a population of 200,000 by the century's end - over three quarters of those Chinese emigrants. The city is already 20 times larger then when the People's Liberation Army invaded in 1950 and while the Tibetan quarter has shrunk, suburbs have sprung up for prisons, security establishments army camps and commercial areas serving Chinese entrepreneurs. Today even the city's sacred core is being bulldozed to build public housing and "beautification' schemes. In the name of creating "a modern socialist city with local national characteristics" the fabric of Lhasa is now teetering on the edge of total destruction.

From The Urban Fate of Lhasa: Destruction of An Ancient Habitat, published by EDD of the Department of Information and International Relations, for Habitat II.

*Hannah Pearce is an American-British journalist based in London, UK

[Reprinted by permission fromThe Office of Tibet,  the official agency of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in London. Contents may not be altered. Last updated: 15-Sept-1997.]

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