Tibetan women from three continents attended the United Nation's Fourth World Conference on Women and the related NGO Forum '95 (nongovernmental organization) this September in Beijing. 35,000 women were registered to attend, less than 25,000 actually arrived. The conferences resulted in a consensus United Nations Platform for Action for equality, peace and development. This article will address the obstacles faces by the Tibetan women's delegation, as well as, its achievements, both in the preparatory process and in Beijing.
Part One: Tibetan Women Challenge U.N. Accreditation Process
While Beijing as a site for this conference raised serious concerns for Tibetans, the Tibetan women's community decided to participate in the conference rather than to boycott it in the hope of educating and connecting with tens of thousands of women. With this aim in mind, Tibetan women and their supporters travelled around the globe to attend various regional and world-wide preparatory conferences on both the governmental and non- governmental levels. All along the way they met with adamant Chinese opposition and overwhelming support from the international women's community.
With one exception, all Tibet related NGOs were denied accreditation to attend the preparatory conferences. Explanations hardly disguised the political nature of the denials: strong objection from China. Thus, the Tibetan Women's Association from India, and Tibet Justice Center, were told last year in New York that they could not be accredited because they were not incorporated in China. (In case you missed U.N. logic: Tibet is a part of China and since these NGOs deal with Tibet they must be incorporated by the motherland.) Only the Swiss Tibetan Women's Organization was accredited once to attend a regional (the ECE region of which China is not a member) preparatory meeting in Vienna.
As the 39th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), opened in New York on March 15, controversy erupted over the issue of accreditation of NGOs to the Beijing conference. On the evening preceding the opening session the conference secretariat published the list of NGOs recommended for accreditation. The list, which included 1323 NGOs ranging from the American Bar Association to the Country Women Association of Nigeria, conspicuously omitted outspoken China critics including all Tibet related NGOs as well as the International Taiwanese Alliance.
Upon learning of the proposed accreditation denials, the 1500 women assembled for the closing session of the NGO Consultation held immediately prior to the CSW session, gave a rousing standing ovation to Lhakpa Dolma. Ms. Dolma, a Tibetan refugee in the Bay Area and current co-chair of Tibet Justice Center's women's committee, called on all NGOs to lobby their government delegates to the CSW not to simply rubber stamp the secretariat's recommendations for accreditation, but to question the basis of denials and the nature of the decision making process itself.
Many government delegations responded to this challenge during the opening session of the CSW. The European Union, led by France, lauded the willingness of so many NGOs to contribute so vitally to the UN and questioned the legitimacy of a process by which the CSW was asked to approve a recommended list of NGOs without having had access to information why some NGOs were not on the list. The European Union further called for a transparent process in which the Commission and NGOs would be provided with the reasons for proposed denials and in which NGOs would have the opportunity to respond to perceived deficiencies in their applications and access to meaningful mechanisms for recourse. After the United States, Canada, Australia, Switzerland, Algeria, Tunisia and the Sudan had all eloquently expressed their support of the European Union's request to open up the accreditation process, the Holy See spoke up, also to question the accreditation recommendations. However, its request was to remove four NGOs from the proposed list, including "Catholics for Free Choice". The Holy See argued that the group was misrepresenting itself since, by definition, Catholics must follow the moral teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and may therefore not be for "free choice".
To resolve the controversies raised, the Commission's bureau created a special working committee on accreditation with two members from each of the UN's five regions, including a representative from China. Due to political realities within the working committee, the committee was unable to place any of the excluded NGOs on the accreditation list. After two weeks of deliberation by the working committee the Commission adopted the working committee's proposed decision by a vote of 40 to 0, with 1 abstention (China). As a result of this decision the Secretariat was to reevaluate the applications of denied NGOs and submit to the UN's Economic and Social Council at its July session in Geneva a revised list of NGOs recommended for accreditation. In addition, the secretariat was required to inform the Economic and Social Council of its reasons for recommending against accrediting those groups not on the accreditation list.
The issue of accreditation denials of Tibetan NGOs was closely watched by the mainstream press which generated dozens of articles, four in the New York Times alone, including a New York Times editorial, which accused the UN of tarnishing the conference by bowing to Chinese pressure.
In response to the CSW's directives, the Conference Secretariat reevaluated the NGO applications initially denied and issued new recommendations for accreditation in June. This included a recommendation that three Tibet NGOs be accredited: The Tibetan Women's Organization (Switzerland), the Tibetan Rights Campaign (USA) and the International Committee of Lawyers for Tibet. However, when these recommendations reached the floor of ECOSOC in July in Geneva, China pulled the three Tibet NGOs off the list to be accredited. Also pulled were Human Rights in China and 15 NGOs critical of the policies of Iran and the Sudan. After several weeks of informal sessions of a working group charged with negotiating the accreditation of these NGOs a compromise was reached by which 8 of the NGOs were accredited. Due to political pressure, none of the Tibet NGOs were accredited. However Human Rights in China did receive accreditation. According to informal reports, the US government acceded to Chinese pressure to exclude the Tibet NGOs in return for having Human Rights in China accredited.
Part Two: Beijing Attempts to Derail Women's Conference:
Barely five months before the NGO Forum was to convene in Beijing, it lost its site, not an insignificant problem for a conference which was expected to draw over 35,000 participants. The Worker's Stadium, which several years ago had been designated as the site of the NGO Forum '95, China now indicated, was structurally unsound. China proposed to relocate the NGO Forum to a recreational facility in what was described as a nature preserve one hour outside of Beijing (After 9 days on the site I never saw the nature!). It was clear to most that this move would isolate the NGO Forum from the official UN conference and undermine the entire purpose of the Forum, which is to dialogue with and provide input to the official U.N. conference. After investigating the site, the NGO Forum's convenor, Supatra Masdit, concluded that the site would not meet the needs of the Forum and the Forums 19 person Facilitating Committee voted to not accept Huairou as the new site. However, after intervention by UN General Secretary, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, did not result in another site offer by China (the Olympic Village site across the street from the UN site could not be used because China was holding a volleyball tournament there!), Supatra Masdit caved in and accepted the Huairou site. Masdit, a 3-term Thai parliamentarian with ambitions of becoming Thailand's next Prime Minister, clearly did not want to upset her relationship with her mighty neighbor, China.
While some isolated voices called for a boycott, the majority of women, who had prepared diligently for this summit, decided to travel to Beijing and Huairou anyway to accomplish their work regardless of these obstacles, presented by China. Thus preparations continued only to be met with further barriers by China, now in the form of bureaucratic requirements for housing confirmation, as a prerequisite to obtaining visas. China did not issue these confirmations until the beginning of August and failed to issue an estimated 4000 confirmations altogether. Thousands of women had to abandon their plans of travelling to Beijing at the last minute due to their inability to apply for visas and China's unwillingness to issue visas in time for departure. Some still tried unsuccessfully to obtain visas after the conference had already started.
While most of these delays and ultimate failures to issue visas were believed to be intended to keep the number of participants down, some were deliberate and calculated to exclude China's critics. Ten 10 Tibetan women from India were denied visas because China would not recognize their refugee identifications cards as valid travel documents. Also denied were three Swiss Tibetan citizens, one US Tibetan citizen, one Swedish and one Norwegian Tibetan citizen, one Dutch Tibetan citizen and one German Tibetan citizen. Also denied were a Swedish member of a Tibet support group and a US citizen with the Unrepresented Peoples and Nations Organization, of which Tibet is an active member. Thus, in the week before the start of the conference the Tibetan women's delegation had suddenly shrunk by 18 members! This left the remaining 9 Tibetan women and their half dozen supporters, who had managed to obtain visas by disguising their Tibet affiliations, even more determined to oppose China's silencing of their voices. And so we left San Francisco for Beijing on August 26, 1995 to join Tibetans from Canada, Norway and Australia!
Part Three: Tibetan Women's Delegation in Beijing - China assures roaring success!
In hindsight my biggest concern, achieving visibility for 9 Tibetans in a sea of tens of thousands of women, seems utterly silly. Having closely followed the accreditation and visa struggles, the world-wide media was more than ready for the news that Tibetan women had in fact arrived in Huairou and Beijing. And so were the Chinese, who did not hold back on heavy handed surveillance, harassment, intimidation and even physical assaults on the delegation. The combination of China's outrageous conduct and the media's readiness resulted in an unprecedented, sweeping and intense media coverage of Tibet. Tibetan women were on the front pages of world papers like the New York Times, the Harold Tribune and the Sydney Post, were highlighted world-wide for several days on major television networks like ABC and CNN and became the focus of articles in magazines like Newsweek and Paris Match.
The harassment and surveillance started the day the delegation set foot in Huairou. Like everyone, we were heavily guarded and watched by police and civilian personnel in our hotel compound, two to four armed police men at the compound's entrance, a couple of guards at every building entrance and often one to two in front of every room. Once the delegation left the hotel and set foot on the conference grounds, a muddy construction site, we received special treatment. We were closely followed usually by 3-5 Chinese who incessantly filmed and photographed us from morning to night. When politely asked to give us some room, to retreat or to leave, our shadows usually did not respond, and often moved in closer, focusing their cameras on our mandatory identification batches. They were security personnel and often undercover police wearing only NGO batches.
What speech and materials would be allowed at the NGO Forum was unclear. Under China's pressure, the NGO Forum had indicated that all anti-Chinese materials could not enter China and that demonstrations would be tolerated only in a designated space and only if they were not anti-Chinese or immoral in nature. Nevertheless thousands of documents about Tibet entered China, undetected, from all over the world. On the first day the Tibet delegation presented a film on Tibetan Refugee Women, only to have a Chinese man grab the video cassette from the VCR and attempt to run with it. Fortunately, someone present-mindedly closed the door while others recovered the cassette from the now trapped agent.
The following day Tibetan women dared the first Tibetan demonstration ever on Chinese soil, walking to the Forum's center in single file under a pouring sky, mouths gagged with Chinese silk scarves which had been distributed to all at the opening ceremony a few days earlier. Several hundred women protectively surrounded them in a half circle, as they stood wordlessly to symbolize Chinese attempts to silence them. As the crowd spontaneously and gently started to sing freedom songs like "we shall overcome", camera's from around the world captured the tears which silently flowed down the Tibetan women's already drenched faces. These photographs appeared across the globe the next day. On the following day, Chinese delegates sabotaged a workshop on violations of human rights in Tibet, organized by the Tibetan women's delegation. By the time the Tibetans arrived in the assigned room (conference maps were highly inaccurate and confusing), 80% of the seats were taken up by Chinese delegates and the remainder of the room was packed to capacity. When the workshop was opened up for questions, a Tibetan woman, member of the Chinese delegation and a high official in Tibet, insisted on getting to the front of the room, transparencies in hand, and attempted to climb over the desk which separated the presenters from the audience. She refused to ask her question from her seat. A physical scuffle ensued. In order for her to get to the front of this intensely packed room, a Chinese man violently but successfully pulled my arm aside, as I was trying to protect another Tibet Justice Center delegate from being stomped, thus allowed the Chinese Tibetan delegate to push her in the back, making her fall forward onto her face. Nothing the Tibetan Women's delegation or members of the audience could do, including prayers in the face of a loudly yelling and shouting Chinese crowd, would allow it to regain control over the workshop. After ten minutes of Chinese led cacophony, the Tibetan Women's delegation silently left the room. The media captured the entire event on film.
The next day, in front of a major network camera, in an episode which lasted over 10 minutes, I was verbally and physically assaulted when I tried to distribute Tibet Justice Center documents on the denial of reproductive rights in Tibet. A similar incident involved the two Tibetan women from Australia, who were verbally assaulted and had one of their identification batches jerked by a Chinese delegate after meeting with the Australian Ambassador and several Ministers on the NGO Forum grounds. The Ambassador escorted the Tibetan women off the ground to safely in his embassy car. The following day he lodged a consular complaint against the Chinese government.
Within this context, Tibetan women lectured on workshop panels on issues ranging from nuclear waste in Tibet, religion, conflict resolution and the effects of foreign occupation on women. They gave dozens of in-depth interviews, several of which were transmitted live to Tibet on Voice of America. They formed new connections and held workshops with women from East Timor, Kurdestan, West Papua and other occupied countries. They learned about the struggle of indigenous women from around the world and formed working alliances with them. They supported the struggle of lesbian rights activists and the environmental and anti-nuclear movement. They joined the Women in Black to address violence against women world-wide and participated in a march organized by Amnesty International, highlighting women political prisoners, including a Tibetan nun, and met hundreds of women from around the world.
The heavy surveillance not only of Tibetans but also of others considered threatening by China, lesbians and human rights activists, in particular, made full participation in the conference difficult. Similarly impaired were women from Iran and the Sudan who were threatened and harassed by security forces of their own governments. The disabled faced once again a special challenge of how to navigate through the muddy, flooded grounds on bumpy, narrow concrete tile paths. I saw no elevators anywhere. The most central building stood in its raw concrete form, rebars protruding, no roof, doors, windows or inside walls. Tents leaked and collapsed in the rain, including China's propaganda Tibetan tent. All in all it was hard to not see the facilities and treatment provided by China as an insult to the international women's community and a reflection on the position of women in China. All obstacles notwithstanding, women, however, met and shared, strategized, planned and moved on to attend the UN Fourth World Conference on Women, in Beijing proper.
By contrast, this conference was held in state of the art facilities, appropriate to impress international guests, such as the many male and some female heads of state and members of parliament. Even surveillance was toned down, though clearly present. The Tibetan women's delegation successfully lobbied for inclusion of language on the effects of foreign occupation on women and prohibition of coercive family planning methods. These lobbying efforts provided for excellent opportunities for Tibetan women to meet government delegates from around the world. The conference document, the Platform for Action, held the line on important issues, which were under attack at the conference by the far right and Muslim nations. However, negotiations were productive and the environment positive, despite differences, an accomplishment many ascribe to the fact that the majority of government negotiators were women. Recently agreed upon concepts such as the universality of human rights were retained and new language on equal inheritance rights and the right to enjoy sexuality free from discrimination, coercion and violence was achieved.
Many lessons can be learned from the Beijing experience, both on a personal and political level. Those of us who went have a new understanding of what state repression feels like. Our great admiration of those who resist it in Tibet and China without the protection of foreign passports and the shield of an international conference, is immeasurably heightened. On a political level, we hope to bring a summary of our experiences and lessons to the United Nations and will propose rules and regulations for future UN events.
The 6 member Tibet Justice Center delegation to Beijing consisted of Chimi Thonden, Yoden Thonden, Tenki Tendufla, Lisa Tracy and Eva Herzer.
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