United Nations World Conference on Human Settlements

Tibetans Charge Chinese with Grave Housing Rights Violations at United Nations World Conference

by Eva Herzer

More than 15,000 government officials and housing experts participated in the United Nations World Conference on Human Settlements, also known as "Habitat II", and its related NGO (nongovernmental organization) Forum, which took place in Istanbul, Turkey, from May 31 through June 14, 1996. The official UN conference, charged with drafting the "Habitat Agenda", a blue print of goals and objectives for international and national housing policies, was attended by high level government officials, including 16 heads of state, as well as, accredited NGO representatives. Prominently among the later was the nine person Tibet NGO Delegation with representatives from the Canada Tibet Committee, Tibet Justice Center (USA), the International Campaign for Tibet (USA), the Tibetan Rights Campaign (USA), the Tibetan Women's Association (India), the Tibetan Youth Congress (India) and the UK Tibet Support Group. The Tibetan Government in Exile was represented by a Tibetan official from Dharamsala and one from Geneva.

The conference themes of sustainable human settlements and shelter for all covered a broad spectrum of issues, ranging from the challenge to alleviate poverty to achieving sustainable development, addressing problems resulting from globalization of the economy, protecting the environment, fostering democratic decision making, assuring equal access for women and vulnerable groups, defining the right to housing, protecting against forced evictions, providing safe homes for all and preserving peoples' cultural heritage. The conference's task of finding resolutions to the world's current housing and related problems was daunting when one considers the following:

1.3 billion of the worlds 5.7 billion people live in poverty, 70% of whom are women. One thirds of all household are headed by single women, (45% in Africa). Close to 50% of the world's population is living in megacities and by the year 2015 this number is expected to increase to 75%. People living in many of the cities of the North are up to 100 times better off than those living in some of the cities of the developing South, yet three million people are homeless in the United States, where 11.5 million poor renters compete for 6.5 million affordable housing units. People in the least developed countries have nine square feet of housing per person, versus 36 in the developed world. Less than 1% of the world's water is found in the soil, lakes, rivers, swamps, plant life and atmosphere and two thirds of all fresh water is locked in ice caps and glaciers. Only 52% of Africans have access to safe water, on a continent where 21% of the children are malnutritioned and 53% of the population is illiterate.

Tibetans not only face poverty, discrimination, homelessness and environmental degradation of their land, but also annihilation of their culture, often under the guise of development and housing policies. Since most, if not all, of Tibet's most serious problems are the result of China's occupation, the Tibet NGO Delegation successfully pressed government officials for inclusion of language in the conference document designed to provide special protection for peoples living under foreign occupation and alien domination. The Tibet NGO Delegation also lobbied hard and successfully for language on preservation of culture and cultural heritage. Most importantly, these lobbying efforts allowed Tibetans the opportunity to educate and make personal connections with a great number of high level officials from around the globe. Many, especially in the Global South (developing world), are still unaware of the colonization of Tibet and the extent of the current cultural genocide in Tibet. As a result, they often vote with China in crucial votes on Tibet at the United Nations.

Unfortunately, the conference document did not adequately address many of the other issues raised at Habitat II. Not only was the scope of the problem overwhelming, but there was also evidence of lack of good will, particularly of many of the nations of the North, to tackle these challenges through new and innovative approaches. These nations, for example, opposed allocation of new resources for implementing agreed upon objectives and refused to create a legal right to housing beyond that already recognized under international law.

Much more activism was present at the NGO Forum where women working with Bombay's street children, experts on eviction law and housing rights, planners and architects, African women from housing cooperatives and grassroots organizers from a most diverse background exchanged ideas and strategies for two weeks. The Tibet Delegation had a very visible presence at the NGO Forum, which was held only 500 meters from the official conference (not 50 miles away as was the case at the Fourth World Conference in Beijing). Thousands wore Tibet solidarity ribbons and visited the Tibet booth, which was well stacked with a variety of publications on housing issues in Tibet, as well as a photo exhibit about the destruction of Lhasa. Hundreds attended events sponsored by the Tibet Delegation, among them a Conference on the Habitat Situation in Tibet, a workshop on International Housing Rights Violations in Tibet and a presentation on Yamdrok Tso: The Destruction of a Sacred Lake. Tibetans addressed the Forum's Value Caucus which explored the effect of values and spiritual beliefs on decision making on the governmental and community levels. The Tibet Delegation screened videos about the destruction of Lhasa and on the Panchen Lama's disappearance and co-sponsored a march with the Asia Pacific Caucus and Amnesty International, commemorating the Tianamen Massacre. A Tibetan spokeswoman testified at a Public Hearing on Housing Rights Violations, presided over by a panel of distinguished jurists.

Tibetans also were in the forefront of organizing a press conference and several protests against the intimidating conditions under which the Habitat conference were held. During the two week long conference 1500 Turkish citizens and some foreigners were detained and arrested for peacefully demonstratiing. 400 of those detained were the "Saturday Mothers", a group of mothers who for one year, each Saturday, had held a non-violent sit-in to protest the disappearances of their men and children. Joined by NGO Forum participants and reporters, they were violently attacked, beaten and arrested by a heavily armed police force. Among those detained were NGO Forum participants. Similarly, approximately 1100 social workers were beaten and arrested when they took the opportunity of the presence of 15,000 foreigners in their city to demonstrate for their right under international law to form a trade union. Such unions are prohibited under Turkish law. Several foreign journalist were also beaten. The officers of Turkey's two largest human rights organizations were similarly detained, as were Turkish gay rights activists. The Alternative Habitat Conference, organized by Turkish human rights activists in response to forced evacuations of 2657 Kurdish villages and the displacement of approximately 3 million Kurdish people by the Turkish government was also forcefully shut down on its first day and many of its participants were detained. Familiar with repression, and having suffered abuse of police power in Beijing at the Fourth World Conference on Women, Tibetans together with a small group of activists organized a press conference and protest which resulted in extensive media coverage in Turkey as well as in the conference newspapers. In their press statement, Tibetans specifically offered their path of non-violence as an alternative way of resolving conflict. Following the initial protest, Tibetans participated in a lobbying campaign to draw international government attention to these human rights abuses.

The Tibet Delegation made profound contacts with the East Turkestani people, whose hospitality to the Tibetans in Istanbul, not only included a wonderful dinner party with dance and song in a private home, but also a very emotional evening with the leaders of the East Turkestani people, who like the Tibetans, suffer under Chinese occupation. Their solidarity even extended to a standing invitation for free meals at the lovely East Turkestani restaurant a few blocks from the Blue Mosk and the Hagia Sophia.

Tibetans' participation at Habitat II educated an estimated 10,000 people on Tibet, strengthened relationships created at prior UN conferences and resulted in many new contacts and new sources of support for Tibet. Very importantly it also educated the Tibet Delegation as to the struggles faced by many other communities and peoples and further linked the Tibet movement with other movements for human rights and justice around the world. While Habitat II was the last major UN World Conference in this millennium, it is crucial that the Tibet movement will continue to be actively involved in upcoming international conferences and play a strong and leaderful role in the ever growing network of international activists for human rights, both on the governmental and nongovernmental levels.

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