By the Editorial Board of The Tibetan Political Review
Declassified documents from 1950 through the 1960s show that Canada considered Tibet to be “qualified for recognition as an independent state.” These documents also show how the Canadian government’s concern over the outcome of United Nations votes led Canada to publicly avoid the question of Tibet’s political status in favor of human rights. But while Canada downplayed Tibet’s political status, it also accepted that the issue of human rights includes the Tibetan people’s right to self-determination.
These declassified documents consist of a trove of secret memos, correspondence, and diplomatic cables. They were obtained by the Canada Tibet Committee and are catalogued by the Tibet Justice Center. Some of the highlights of this collection are described below. (In all cases, any emphasis in the text is added by us).
Canada’s Views on Tibet’s Independent Statehood
One of the most important documents is a November 21, 1950 cable from Canada’s Secretary of State for External Affairs to the Canadian Ambassador in Washington DC (another identical cable was sent the same day to the head of the Canadian delegation to the United Nations). The Secretary of State discloses that the department’s Legal Division had asked and concluded:
A few days earlier, on November 16, 1950, the Canadian High Commissioner (Ambassador) in India, Warwick Chipman, wrote a cable entitled “Chinese invasion of Tibet” to Canada’s Secretary of State for External Affairs. Ambassador Chipman rubbished Chinese claims to Tibet thusly:
Even as late as March 24, 1959, internal Canadian documents considered Tibet a “country”. In a secret memorandum to Prime Minister John George Diefenbaker, an aide initialed N.A.R. stated that Tibet sometimes exhibited a “considerable degree of independence” and recently was “vaguely under nominal Chinese suzerainty.” N.A.R. went on to note that:
Canadian Internal Policy Discussions
A secret twelve-page review by the Chiefs of Staff Committee of the Canadian Department of National Defense, dated October 6, 1950, looked at Tibet’s strategic importance. The document viewed the Tibetan government under the Dalai Lama to be “loose in structure” but secure from internal threats. However it believed that Tibetan leaders have an “unrealistic” and “naïve” view of their ability to “resist aggression from any quarter”, i.e. China.
The Department of National Defense document found that Tibet’s 10,000 troops were “poorly trained and of low morale”. It believed that China would gain little economic or military benefit from occupying Tibet. However such an occupation would raise Chairman Mao’s “prestige” and “stature”, would strengthen Mao’s hand in dealing with Indian leader Jawaharlal Nehru, and would “serve to divert Chinese popular interest away from Formosa [Taiwan]”. The conclusion was that the “chief strategic importance of control of Tibet by the Chinese would therefore be political”. The military authors concluded that, if Sino-Indian relations worsen and China fails to gain indirect control over Tibet, “Chinese invasion of Tibet will become virtually certain.”
The conclusion that China’s interest in Tibet was primarily political was echoed by a June 23, 1959 letter from Canada’s Trade Commissioner in Hong Kong, C.J. Small, to the Department of External Affairs. The Canadian trade commissioner noted that both the Chinese Nationalists and Communists agreed that Tibet is an “integral part of China” and that “Tibet was used as a rallying cry in an effort to unite the [Chinese] nation and divert its attention from domestic problems.”
The trade commissioner rather laudably went on to look at Tibetan attitudes towards what he referred to as “their Chinese overlords”. He concluded that, in the March 1959 Tibetan uprising, the
Canadian Policy Meets Politics: What Happened?
When it came time to take action on the basis of Canada’s internal discussions about Tibet, Canada’s policy became timid. A confidential August 31, 1961 internal briefing discussing what would later become U.N. Resolution 1723 explained that Canada would support the resolution “on the basis of a violation of human rights” and “avoid political judgments about the international status of Tibet”. The reason for what Canada called its “moderate” position was to ensure that China’s neighbors would not oppose the resolution, and fear that a defeat of the resolution would disclose “the impotence of the United Nations.”
A cable from the Department of External Affairs to the Canadian U.N. delegation a month later, on October 1, 1959, expressed concern about the resolution language. The cable emphasized that the “issue is not one of Tibet’s autonomous or non-autonomous status, but one of the violation of basic human rights”. The cable also worried that the U.N. resolution may run afoul of Article 2(7) of the U.N. Charter, which forbids interference in internal affairs of a state; this is odd considering that the department’s own legal office considered China’s suzerainty – not even sovereignty – over Tibet to be a “mere fiction.”
There is also a letter from Prime Minister Diefenbaker to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, dated September 29, 1960. Diefenbaker was apparently responding to an earlier letter from His Holiness, and his short reply is courteous but noncommittal. He only says that Canada will be “receptive” to initiatives dealing with “the human rights of the people of Tibet.”
A heartbreaking reply from His Holiness to Diefenbaker, dated October 28, 1961, expressed His Holiness’s hope for Canadian assistance because Canada has “played a leading role in upholding the rights of the smaller nations of the world.” His Holiness warns that without assistance there may be “nothing left of Tibet” and “no Tibetans at all”, and states that he “would beg of Your Excellency and your Government to persuade to United Nations to adopt such measures as might bring about a peaceful end to the grim tragedy of today.”
A confidential 1964 Canadian internal briefing in preparation for the debate over the final U.N. resolution on Tibet, Resolution 2079, saw a slight change of tone for the better. It notes that:
By implication, the question of Tibet’s political status was not avoided because China’s claims to sovereignty were necessarily accepted. This was good for Tibet.
Also good, the 1964 document folds self-determination for the Tibetan people into the concept of human rights, as U.N. Resolution 1723 did three years earlier. The briefing discussed the “human rights and freedoms of the Tibetan people, especially their cultural, religious and civil liberties and their right to self-determination.” This marks one of the most useful points going forward, which is that regardless of Tibet’s political status, Canadian policy on Tibet has recognized that human rights explicitly includes the Tibetan people’s right to self-determination.
However by May 5, 1969, Canada was on the verge of recognizing the People’s Republic of China, and a confidential letter within the Department of External Affairs instructs that “publicity be kept to a minimum for any Canadian aid to [refugee] Tibetans.” The Tibet issue was to be buried in the interest of relations with China.
When the Canadian government announced Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s upcoming trip to China in mid-February 2012, its news release celebrated “deepening economic ties”. The release also noted that 2010 marked 40 years of diplomatic relations between Canada and the People’s Republic of China. Nowhere was mention of issues like human rights or the self-immolation crisis in Tibet, let alone the issue of what right China has to rule what Canada once called the country of Tibet.
Perhaps Harper feels -- like Canada did at the U.N. debate five decades ago -- that Canada cannot push too hard. Perhaps Harper wishes simply to bury Tibet in the interest of relations with the People’s Republic of China, as Canada did in the May 1969 letter.
But before the Canadian government does so, it might consider the words of its own Hong Kong-based trade commissioner, C.J. Small, arguing for action back in 1959:
The same could be said for Canadian principles as for U.N. action. Perhaps the Canadian government now finds it inconvenient that it once saw Tibet as a country qualified for recognition as a sovereign state, or that it viewed China’s armed entry into Tibet as an invasion. But for Canada to live up to its self-image as the “True North strong and free”, it must not forget these facts. Moreover, the Canadian government must recall that, even if its policy toward Tibet were strictly limited to supporting human rights, it has recognized that the Tibetan people’s human rights expressly include their right to self-determination.
* The declassified documents are available at: http://www.tibet.ca/_media/PDF/secret_canada_tibet_file.pdf
* Please see also, The Forgotten History of Tibet's Role in Nepal's 1949 U.N. Application, by the editorial board of The Tibetan Political Review, October 3, 2011.