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Book Chapter

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Susan M. Akram and Tom Syring




Cambridge Scholars Publishing




This chapter for a book on protracted refugee crises argues that the origins of both the unresolved Tibetan refugee crisis and the tragic and unprecedented wave of some 120 self-immolations in Tibet since 2009 lie in Tibet’s unacknowledged status as a colony. China illegally invaded and annexed Tibet in 1950, and it remains under belligerent occupation to this day. Contrary to the official views of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the United States, and (to my knowledge) every other state in the world, it is a fiction to refer to the Tibetan people as a Chinese 'minority nationality'. Every credible study (excluding, that is, PRC 'white papers') of Tibet and its people’s legal and historical status so concludes. The Tibetan people’s history as a nation extends back millennia. Despite the nebulous law on self-determination in the post-Cold War era, if any people merit what international law denotes 'external' self-determination — that is, the right (afforded to virtually all other colonies since 1945) to choose among independence as a sovereign state, integration with an existing state, or free association status based on a free and fair referendum — it is the Tibetan people. Their right to external self-determination arises from several facts, each independently sufficient, but even more compelling in combination: Tibet’s status as a colonized nation; the PRC’s continuing refusal to afford Tibetans any genuine autonomy consistent with the right of peoples to 'internal' self-determination; and more than half a century of systematic and severe human rights violations inconsistent with even the PRC’s own view of Tibetans as a minority nationality. Hence the self-immolation crisis within Tibet, a drastic act of dissent and protest in a political environment that enables few other forms of dissent, arises from the same circumstances that perpetuate the unresolved refugee crisis without (i.e., outside of Tibet). Acknowledging Tibet’s colonization is a necessary but insufficient step to resolving both crises.


Boston University School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 13-44

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