Obama Avoids the Dalai Lama, Meets With Criticism Instead PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Rebecca Novick   

This October, President Obama became the first president in eighteen years to not meet His Holiness the Dalai Lama during the Tibetan leader’s Washington visit.

Earlier this year, China’s Foreign Minister, Yang Jiechi, said that refusing visits by the Dalai Lama should become one of “the basic norms of international relations” of any country cultivating ties with China, and the decision has been explained by the White House as part of their policy of “strategic reassurance” aimed at improving Sino-US relations.

“Tibetan people know that our strong relationship with China helps them,” said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. But Republican Congressman Frank Wolf, an outspoken critic of China’s human rights record, argues that the decision actually makes the United States look weak.

While acknowledging that presidential meetings with the Dalai Lama are purely symbolic, human rights advocates say that by not meeting the Dalai Lama, Obama is sending a clear signal to other world leaders that it is okay to compromise on human rights. If Obama can’t meet the Dalai Lama, they say, then who can? In other words, symbolism matters.

“It is only a minor compromise, said former Czech president, Vaclav Havel. “But exactly with these minor compromises start the big and dangerous ones, the real problems.”

Obama is hoping that by making such concessions he can persuade Beijing’s leaders to cooperate on financial, environmental and foreign policy issues. Sophie Richardson, Asia advocate for Human Rights Watch, disputes this logic. “This idea that if you are nice to the Chinese Communist Party up front you can cash in later is just wrong. If you lower the bar on human rights they will just move it lower and lower.”

“If the Tibet relationship is seen as an irritant to the US-China relationship, then that will cripple our ability to be of help,” a senior US official told the New York Times. However, human rights advocates point out that in order to help the victims of repressive regimes in any effective way, the United States needs to stand firm on international standards of conduct.

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“If there is no explicit agreement to stop locking up environmental activists and whistle-blowers then any environmental agreement will be weakened, says Richardson. “If the press in China is muzzled it won’t investigate industrial safety and you will have more toxic toys coming to the United States.”

State department officials say that Obama will meet with the Dalai Lama after the president’s November summit with Chinese President Hu Jintao, possibly in December. But the Washington Post reported that an “Asian diplomat” with ties to Chinese delegations in the US, said that that the decision to delay a meeting was unnecessary. Speaking on condition of anonymity, the diplomat said that Beijing had already become resigned to an October meeting between the US president and the Dalai Lama going ahead, and that their concerns had already moved on to the issue of how the Tibetan leader would be received.

Rep. Frank Wolf contemplated how this news would be received by Tibetan prisoners of conscience: “I can almost hear the words of the Chinese guards saying to them that nobody cares about you in the United States.”

The concern that Obama’s decision sends a signal to the Chinese government that it can continue to act with impunity gained ground when just two weeks later, four Tibetans were executed in Lhasa – the first executions to be held of those convicted for the 2008 riots. The original trials took place in April this year behind closed doors. The defendants did not have access to independent legal representation and there were no outside observers.

Rebecca Novick is the founding producer of The Tibet Connection radio program. Urge Obama to keep Tibet on the US agenda. Find out more and listen to the latest program at: thetibetconnection.org.

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