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Investigating T.N. Tethong’s Self-Determination Policy

posted Nov 21, 2010, 6:05 PM by The Tibetan Political Review   [ updated Nov 22, 2010, 5:14 AM ]

By the Editorial Board of The Tibetan Political Review

In this editorial, we examine what we see as the key aspects of Tenzin Namgyal Tethong’s stated policy on possibly the most important issue facing the electorate: the future course of the Tibetan struggle.  This piece is meant to complement our piece on Lobsang Sangay’s policy on the same issue, in which we asked the candidate to clarify some apparently contradictory statements.  As described below, we believe that Tethong’s stated policy of self-determination is well-grounded in international law, but suffers from a serious lack of specificity.

A (Brief) Summary of the Law of Self-Determination

Self-determination is a basic principle of international law enshrined in the U.N. Charter and binding treaties such as International Covenant on Economic and Social Rights (which China has ratified).  It is fundamentally a procedural right, defined in General Assembly (GA) Resolution 1514 as the right of “all peoples” to “freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.”

There is a separate question of who are a “people” for the purposes of self-determination. We can safely sidestep it since GA Resolution 1723 specifically declares Tibetans a “people” with the “right to self-determination.”

Tibet's delegation at the U.N., 1959
(Rinchen Sadutshang, Wangchuk D. Shakabpa, and Gyalo Thondup)

GA Resolution 1541 clarifies that the process of self-determination can lead to independence, free association, or integration with another state (including autonomy).
  Clearly, the exercise of this procedural right can conflict with the right of existing states to territorial integrity.  This tension was addressed by GA Resolution 2625, which provides that self-determination shall not impair the territorial integrity of states “conducting themselves in compliance with the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples…”

In essence, this means that there can be no right to secession for a “people” provided autonomy rights, or possibly equal rights (like the so-called “Obama of China” scenario, where Tibetans gain equal rights as Chinese citizens).

In contrast, there might be a right to secession (or at least no prohibition on secession) if the state in question denies such rights, as China now does to Tibetans.  This is certainly the implication of the Canadian Supreme Court’s 1998 case on Quebec’s secession, although the issue was studiously avoided by the International Court of Justice’s relatively un-illuminating 2010 advisory opinion on Kosovo.[FN1]

Suffice to say, the right of “independence as a last resort” is a valid argument, though not firmly settled law. However, even a more minimal view of self-determination would encompass the right of a people to choose outcomes such as autonomy.

Tethong’s Statements on Self-Determination: Legal but Vague

Tethong was the only candidate to respond to a set of questions gathered from TPR’s readers.  On behalf of our readers, we thank Tethong for having the courtesy, transparency, and respect for the voters to open himself up to examination of his relatively detailed responses.  In his set of answers, he described his policy on Tibet’s future status as follows:

“The Tibet-China dialogue has come to a full stop because the Chinese have rejected the Middle Way proposal of “genuine autonomy” …. Therefore, we have to carefully consider our options, even consider new options, and push hard without doubt or hesitation for justice. …

“I do not think we are obligated to any previously held position since the Chinese have rejected the Middle Way, and because they remain adamant that any future discussions will be limited to the personal needs of the Dalai Lama. … We need to find a way to promote a resolution of the Tibetan issue based on the reasoning that the human rights of the Tibetan people are not for the Chinese to grant, or to abuse. And that collectively, we as a people have the right to determine our own future. These are universal rights, recognized by the family of nations and enshrined in U.N. resolutions, for which the Chinese have no special exemption."  [Emphasis added]

Tethong is absolutely clear that he does not believe the Tibetan side is bound by past efforts to reach an accommodation with the Chinese side.  In this, we see a refreshing clarity.

However, he is less clear on the outcome he favors when he discusses his position in favor of self-determination.[FN2]   As described above, self-determination is a process, not a destination.  It is a means by which a people choose its future, not a choice itself.

Essentially, Tethong is saying that he supports the right of the Tibetan people to make their own decision. As with Sangay’s call for unspecified “unity” between supporters of
Rangzenand Ume Lam, the principle of self-determination represents an attempt to bridge the divide. The problem is: the leader cannot simply tell his or her people “you decide.” While the leader should respect a difference of opinion, he or she must also offer up his or her own vision. Tethong’s unofficial campaign slogan is “Experience, Integrity, Vision” -- we would like to see the vision.

Moreover, perhaps Tethong could address the scenario of self-determination being exercised through a referendum in Tibet on whether Tibet should become independent or an autonomous entity within China.  If His Holiness were to publicly favor one of the choices, would the Tibetan people vote according to their personal beliefs or adopt His recommendation out of respect, veneration, and deference?

In addition to not specifying the outcome he would favor, Tethong is vague on the means he would employ to get there.  He states: 

“‘Everything possible’ should include upgrading all or most of our current efforts and even carrying out new initiatives and new strategies. In recent years we have emphasized accommodation and openness through dialogue. I believe we can continue to do this while, at the same time, ratcheting up our arguments and efforts. We have to push hard without doubt or hesitation for justice.”

We are left confused as to what concrete steps Tethong is proposing.  His statement is, frankly, unenlightening. No one would be against “pushing hard … for justice.” The problem is: what does this mean in practice? What would it look like to continue our dialogue efforts while ratcheting up other means? Unfortunately, Tethong does not say.

Just as a frame without a picture is empty, a framework of self-determination is empty without a plan to win. International law alone will not triumph against China. At most, international law can provide Tibetan claims with legitimacy. Legitimacy is critical, but it is up to Tibetans to come up with a plan to turn legitimacy into success in the real world.

The Beginnings of a Plan?

The closest that Tethong gets to a plan to win is the following statement:

"[1] The real long term solution will begin to unfold when the Chinese leadership is fully convinced that they have made a complete mistake in their invasion and occupation of Tibet, that their ill-founded policies over the last fifty years have not been good for Tibet or China, and that they need to have a complete overhaul of their policies keeping the wishes and aspirations of the Tibetan people at its core. [2] Or, when occupying Tibet becomes too difficult for the Chinese to maintain, either because of internal problems or external circumstances. In either of these cases, the main efforts towards freedom must come from us, the Tibetan people."

We cannot agree with the first premise.  Some maintain an optimism that the current Chinese regime, perhaps led by future president Xi Jinping, may be convinced to repent and reform its Tibet policy.  We are more skeptical, due to structural factors such as the Chinese leadership’s paranoid aversion to risk and the powerful institutional self-interest of the military and bureaucracies dealing with “ethnic affairs.”

The second premise is more interesting. At the risk of reading too much into his statement, Tethong appears to be arguing here for what military theorists would recognize as a strategy of coercion. This contrasts with conversion (convincing the opponent that you are right) or conquest (literally forcing the opponent to do your will). Coercion can be violent or nonviolent; it aims to alter the opponent’s cost/benefit or pain/payoff calculation, thereby making them act in a way that you want.

We hope Tethong will elaborate on a strategy for (nonviolently) making “occupying Tibet… too difficult for the Chinese to maintain.”  As it stands now, this statement is interesting but lacking substance.  If it can be filled out, then perhaps it could form the basis of a picture to fill the frame of self-determination.



In the Kosovo opinion, the ICJ held that international law did not preclude Kosovo from making a unilateral declaration of independence.  The ICJ did not opine on whether Kosovo is a “state” under international law that is entitled to independence or whether Kosovo had the  legal right to secede from Serbia.  The ICJ did not opine on whether Kosovo had the right to self-determination or whether there is a right to “remedial secession” under principles of self-determination. 

[2]  On November 18, 2010, Lobsang Sangay also advocated the principle of self-determination.  His statement additionally endorsed the Middle Way, indicating that he believes the Tibetan right to self-determination should be exercised in favor of autonomy rather than the other options.