Editorial and Op Ed Articles
Premier Wen Jiabao’s unprecedented decision to suspend the 13 dams project on the Salween River (Gyalmo Ngulchu in Tibetan, Nu Jiang in Chinese) is indeed a courageous, incremental step towards sustainable development for a government that in the past has shown limited concern about the environmental and social impacts of the public works undertaken by its Ministry of Water Resources.
As the project proponents argue, the proposed 13 dams would have generated over 21,000 MW of power and brought much needed economic growth to poverty stricken local people. Yet the government has chosen to listen to concerns about the project’s impacts on the local ecology and indigenous peoples. The region, as quoted in an official Chinese news source is “home” to “virgin forests, 7,000 species of plants and 80 rare or endangered animal species,” and people of 22 different “ethnic minorities,” including Tibetans. The highest and the northern-most of the 13 dams, the 307 meter tall Song Ta Dam, that is expected to displace more than 3,600 people is planned in Tibetan inhabited areas. The project also attracted downstream international concerns, as well as from the UN -- nine of the three dams fall within the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
There are many actors responsible for this refreshing development. Our admiration goes to the selfless Chinese environmental activists, scientists and journalists who have been working with local people and authorities on the ground, in educating the government and the world about Yunnan’s diverse cultural and ecological wealth. Their innovative initiatives in educating the public about the Salween’s ecological and cultural beauty -- be it through photo exhibitions at post offices in Beijing or local sight-seeing tours for journalists -- are inspiring examples for the rest of us. These innovative and devoted people are effectively helping China’s leaders steer the country towards sustainable development.
Now that the project has been suspended, much depends on the environmental impact assessment process that is being done again under the auspices of the Beijing Institute of Surveying and Design, a hydropower engineering consultancy group. It is now critical for SEPA (China’s State Environmental Protection Agency) to ensure that the study is conducted according to the highest standards set in the new Environmental Impact Assessment Law (EIAL). SEPA's role in promoting sustainable development in China is often overlooked. In fact, it was the passage of the more stringent EIAL last year that helped stop construction of the first of the 13 dams, Liuku Dam, months before Wen Jiabao’s orders. SEPA can now ensure that the new environmental impact assessment includes the studies conducted by them last year, including the two “tribunals” of local people, experts and “concerned units.”
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A Human Rights Framework for Development in Tibet
By Carole Samdup*
When the Tibetan government-in-exile (TGIE) released its new Guidelines for International Development Projects and Sustainable Development in Tibet last month [See "Recommended new reports online" for a link to the report], it emphasized a "needs-based approach" for planning and implementation of development initiatives on the high plateau. In adopting this needs approach, the TGIE has failed to take into account the current momentum within development circles for a rights-based framework for development planning, implementation and evaluation strategies.
In describing its rationale for a needs-approach, the TGIE said:
"It is time for a new approach based directly on human needs because the human needs approach is direct, observable, locally-based and not reliant on mammoth investment, grandiose visions or ideological convictions."
A needs-based approach to development in Tibet abandons the Tibetan people to the whims and discretionary policies of politicians within the various levels of government in China as well as those of Western bureaucrats and the aid agencies they control. Moreover, a needs approach does nothing to address the negative impact that sometimes results from the activities of international agencies or transnational corporations. The Tibetan people are provided neither dignity nor legal recourse should their human rights be violated as a result of inappropriate or harmful “development” practices of any type.
A rights framework for development is holistic in nature and promotes the realization of all human rights – civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. It emphasizes the interdependence between democratic governance and social progress. Far from focusing on "grandiose visions" or "ideological convictions," a rights framework places the human person at the centre of the development process and provides an internationally-recognized legal framework for meaningful individual and collective participation. This quality is particularly relevant for the Tibetan people living under Chinese rule.
The trend towards rights-based frameworks for development stems primarily from concerns about the erosion of national autonomy in the face of globalisation and, in particular, of economic liberalization and integration. It is related to the inability of national governments to create or protect national legislation designed to ensure equitable distribution of wealth and non-discriminatory provision of services within their borders. A rights-based framework also responds to the particular problems faced by a people living under the political control of another group with conflicting interests or priorities for development programming.
In the case of Tibet a rights-approach would, theoretically at least, empower the Tibetan people to claim such things as the continuous improvement of living standards, non-discrimination in the provision of healthcare or education, and active participation in decision-making with regards to the use of natural resources. It would influence programming by Western agencies to prioritize activities that serve those objectives.
A rights framework for development provides a number of other distinct advantages. Primarily, it uplifts the human person to a position of dignity in that he/she claims specific inalienable rights or entitlements from government rather than accepting random benefits provided on a discretionary basis for undetermined lengths of time and under variable conditions. Moreover, the non-discrimination requirement that governs all human rights mitigates social exclusion by requiring that special emphasis is placed on the delivery of development benefits to vulnerable sectors of society, such as rural people.
Oxfam International has articulated the value-added of a rights framework for development in a recent paper entitled, International Frameworks, Policies Priorities and Implications: A Guide for NGOs:
"A rights approach assumes that there is an acknowledged duty-bearer with a responsibility to respect, protect and fulfil the rights of a legitimate claimant or rights holder. The welfare concept of beneficiary is incompatible with a rights-based approach. Further, the language of unfulfilled or denied rights, must replace the language of needs, an idea of entreaty or charity that is also incompatible with a rights-based approach".
In fact, a needs-approach may be effective in democratic states with active civil societies and freedom of expression, association and opinion. In that situation, government is generally responsive to community participation and accountable to public scrutiny of the implementation process. In Tibet, this is not the case. Development priorities are determined in Beijing, often with political objectives, and foreign development assistance is required to adopt the overarching design of that development strategy. Even if some needs are met along the way at the project level, there is no over-arching framework that addresses the structural causes of under-development.
While the substantive content of the TGIE guidelines is comprehensive and relevant, it is the framework in which it is written that fails to empower the Tibetan people to adequately lead their own development process. What is required is a fresh look at the meaning and goal of development in its broadest sense. A rights framework for the TGIE's development recommendations would build Tibetan autonomy by providing the Tibetan people with a measure of ownership over their development process.
[*Carole Samdup is a program officer at Montreal-based Rights & Democracy and a founding member of the Canada Tibet Committee. She can be contacted via e-mail at email@example.com]
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