GENEVA (Reuters) - The United Nations’ most senior human rights official urged China on Friday to address deep-rooted frustrations that have led to desperate forms of protest by Tibetans, including some 60 self-immolations since March 2011.
Navi Pillay called on the Chinese authorities to release detainees, allow independent human rights monitors to visit Tibet, and to lift restrictions on media access to the restive Himalayan region.
“Social stability in Tibet will never be achieved through heavy security measures and suppression of human rights,” Pillay said, in a rare statement critical of China.
Her spokesman said the appeal was not issued to coincide with a Communist Party congress opening next week, but that the “time had come to talk publicly” about allegations of violence against Tibetans seeking to exercise their fundamental freedoms.
China’s foreign ministry was not immediately available for comment. Beijing has branded the self-immolators “terrorists” and criminals and accused the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Dalai Lama, of inciting them.
In the statement, Pillay “urged Chinese authorities to promptly address the longstanding grievances that have led to an alarming escalation in desperate forms of protest, including self-immolations in Tibetan areas”.
As United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, she said she recognized Tibetans’ intense sense of frustration but urged community and religious leaders to use their influence to help prevent people from setting themselves on fire.
The victims include seven Tibetans who set fire to themselves in the past two weeks in protest against what they said was repressive Chinese rule in the Himalayan region.
“Those are an illustration of how serious the situation is,” Pillay’s spokesman, Rupert Colville, told a news briefing in Geneva.
“We don’t see any progress in dealing with the underlying problems facing Tibetans both in Tibet and in other areas, because quite a few of the self-immolations have been in Tibetan areas outside Tibet itself,” he said, referring to Sichuan and Gansu provinces, next to what China calls the Tibet Autonomous Region.
Pillay urged Beijing to respect Tibetans’ rights to peaceful assembly and expression and to release anyone detained for exercising those rights.
Arrests, disappearances and curbs on the cultural rights of Tibetans persist, she said.
Cases have included a 17-year-old girl said to have been severely beaten and sentenced to three years in prison for distributing flyers calling for Tibet’s freedom and the return of the Dalai Lama, she said.
Others had been sentenced to four to seven years for writing essays, making films, or distributing photos of events in Tibet outside China, Pillay added.
Beijing brands the Dalai Lama a dangerous separatist. He denies supporting violence, saying he merely seeks greater autonomy for his homeland, which he says is a victim of Chinese “cultural genocide”.
Activists say China tramples on religious freedom and culture in Tibet, which has been ruled with an iron fist since the 1950 takeover. China rejects such criticism, saying its rule ended serfdom and brought development to a backward area.
Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Additional reporting by Sui-Lee Wee in Beijing; Editing by Jon Boyle and Andrew Osborn