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  • 27 Oct, 2023
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Existence of the Tibetan government in exile is a source of hope: Founders of Atlas Movement on their visit to CTA

Andrea Venzon and Colombe Cahen-Salvado, the visionary founders of Atlas, a global political party with a mission to unite people across the world in pursuit of a freer, better, and more equitable planet, recently paid a significant visit to the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile. Atlas is a global political party aiming to unite people worldwide to create a freer, better, and more equitable planet. With 24,000 supporters in over 134 countries, the Atlas, after years of grassroots activism, announced becoming a global political party on 15th September  2023.

In this interview, Andrea Venzon and Colombe Cahen-Salvado shed light on their inspiring journey, the values and principles that underpin Atlas, and the significance of their visit to the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile.


1. How would you describe the current state of human rights in Tibet and what specific issues concern you the most?

Hello, thank you for having us. I'm Colomb, one of the co-founders of Atlas. We recently had the privilege of meeting with the Central Tibetan Administration to gain a better understanding of the situation in Tibet and how global nations and organizations can support the Tibetan freedom struggle. While I haven't personally visited Tibet, I have closely followed numerous reports detailing the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) extensive crackdown on various human rights, including education, culture, freedom of expression, identity, and the forced displacement of Tibetans. The CCP's actions even extend to environmental destruction in Tibet.

It's challenging to pinpoint a single issue that concerns me the most, given the extensive list of human rights violations committed by the Chinese Communist Party. However, one concern that has emerged from my discussions with NGOs and the Central Tibetan Administration relates to the transnational repression faced by Tibetans living in exile. This issue is not limited to Tibet itself; it extends to Tibetan communities around the world. In my home country of France, for example, many Tibetan exiles have become victims of transnational oppression, and they often lack effective channels to report these incidents in a safe manner.

Fundamentally, I believe that democratic countries should provide at least a safe haven for individuals facing such repression. This is a fundamental aspect of protecting human rights, and it should be a cornerstone of any democratic nation's principles. Additionally, recognizing and supporting the freedom of expression and the Tibetan cause is crucial for upholding the values of democracy and human rights.

2. What role do you believe international governments and organizations should play in addressing the Tibetan issue?

I'll convey the perspective of the Central Tibetan Administration, as our visit aimed to learn from them, and I genuinely agree with their views. To address the Tibetan issue, the first crucial step is to accurately name the situation for what it is. No government has officially recognized the occupation of Tibet or acknowledged Tibet's rightful status as an independent country. Therefore, the minimum expectation from countries should be to recognize the fact of the occupation and to support the Central Tibetan Administration's claim for autonomy, if not independence, for Tibet. This is the first essential step.

It's disheartening to see that many nations avoid taking a principled stance on Tibet due to trade interests or a lack of moral backbone when it comes to upholding democracy and human rights. This selective approach to international affairs is deeply concerning. Naming the situation, while not the sole solution, is a critical starting point. Once there's a collective agreement on the issue, it becomes much more feasible to address it effectively. Unfortunately, countries have been disappointingly hesitant in recognizing and condemning the Chinese government's occupation of Tibet.

3. How do you see the future of the Tibetan cause and what are the key steps you believe need to be taken to achieve this goal? What does the future of Tibetan cause look like?

Regarding the future of the Tibetan cause, I want to clarify that I am not Tibetan, and therefore, I may not be the best person to answer this question. However, I find hope in the government in exile that the Tibetan people have established. Atlas has had the privilege of working with freedom activists from various regions facing repression and occupation, such as Hong Kong, Belarus, Ukraine, Venezuela, and others. These struggles often endure for decades, and quick resolutions are rare. Over time, it's easy for representatives to lose credibility as they may no longer be elected, leading to the emergence of various factions and a lack of a unified voice.

In the case of Tibet, the existence of the Tibetan government in exile is a source of hope. It provides legitimacy and a single entity to address when discussing Tibet. This enables it to maintain a sustained struggle over the long term and approach other countries and intergovernmental organizations with credibility and representation, ultimately serving the cause of Tibet in exile. I believe this model is instrumental for the Tibetan cause's future.

As for the key steps that need to be taken, I believe that the growing awareness among Western countries about China's aggressive foreign policy and its imperialistic approach is a significant development. This could be a turning point because it forces democracies to make a choice. They can either come together to form a common front against authoritarianism, taking a systemic stance on human rights violations, or they risk losing ground to authoritarian regimes.

Tibet has faced repression, and so has Hong Kong, which raises concerns about what might be next. Therefore, I hope that this growing awareness will serve as a wake-up call for the international community. Additionally, the advocacy campaigns led by Tibetan organizations will be instrumental in garnering support for the Tibetan cause.

4. Your experience visiting the Central Tibetan administration seems to have been inspiring and transformative. Can you please share specific insights or moments from your time in Dharamshala that had a profound impact on your perspective on how you believe the unique model of the CTA could serve as a source of inspiration for other political entities and governments around the world, especially in these challenging times?

My visit to the Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamshala was indeed inspiring, and I would like to share some specific insights and moments that left a profound impact on my perspective, particularly in how the unique model of the CTA could serve as a source of inspiration for other political entities and governments worldwide, especially in these challenging times.

One of the most remarkable aspects I encountered during my visit was the consistent emphasis on a broader, more holistic perspective. This is something you don't often hear in the context of freedom struggles. While I personally do not come from an authoritarian country or a nation under occupation, it was striking to observe the deep interconnectedness that the Tibetan cause has with global issues. Tibetan organizations and representatives repeatedly stressed that their struggle is not only about Tibet; it is about the welfare of all of humanity.

This perspective went beyond the immediate political implications and addressed strategic interests as well. The representatives pointed out that the Chinese Communist Party's influence does not stop at Tibet's borders. It extends globally, and therefore, it is in the strategic interest of countries like India and the entire world to support a free Tibet. Furthermore, Tibet's significance in climate issues was highlighted. The Tibetan plateau's ecological diversity is of vital importance, and its protection is crucial for the well-being of the entire planet.

In addition to this broader outlook, the democratization of the Central Tibetan Administration was truly exceptional. It is rare to see leaders, whether they hold religious, spiritual, or political positions, willingly relinquishing political power for the greater good. The example of the Dalai Lama's willingness to democratize their institution is something that the world can learn from. This commitment to democratic principles is essential for good governance and the well-being of the people.

The CTA is not merely stopping at the basics of democratization; they are actively seeking ways to improve their functioning. For instance, the Deputy Speaker of the Parliament mentioned their efforts to empower local assemblies, allowing them to structure themselves and elect representatives to express grievances to the central Parliament. This innovative approach to democracy demonstrates the CTA's dedication to improving their system continually.

In conclusion, what was most striking about my visit to the Central Tibetan Administration was the blend of a holistic perspective, a commitment to democratic principles, and a relentless pursuit of self-improvement. Governments worldwide can indeed learn from this model, which places the welfare of humanity at the center of its mission and constantly strives for better governance for the benefit of its people. It is my opinion that the world would be a better place if more governments adopted these values and practices.

5. Could you share a specific conversation or experience, if you have, that exemplifies the unique nature of the freedom struggle that Tibetans are fighting and its impact on your understanding of their cause? If there is one specific conversation or experience, if you have to share, if you remember one unique experience.

During our discussions, we had several conversations, with one in particular standing out. While I won't disclose the source, it focused on the issue of transnational repression. This was a recurring theme in our interactions, involving individuals from the media, the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), and various NGOs. What struck me most was the revelation that individuals were engaging in self-censorship due to fear for their families back in Tibet.

This is a point worth emphasizing because, in our previous work, such as with Hong Kong, we've seen how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) wields extensive power and effectively employs transnational repression. However, in the case of Tibet, the level of control exercised by the CCP is profound, encompassing all aspects of life, from culture to education and beyond. Individuals, including journalists, CTA personnel, and NGO workers, were so apprehensive about being identified that they deliberately minimized their visibility to protect their families.

This underscores the significant risks that Tibetans are taking when they choose to speak out. Their courage and the dangers they face for themselves and their families should not be underestimated. It's imperative that we offer them support and work to ensure that their efforts have a meaningful impact. Unlike my situation, where I can speak without personal risk, individuals in Tibet and in exile who speak out are facing real threats, and it's our responsibility to make a difference in their struggle.

6. In your article you expressed strong criticism regarding China's re-election to the United Nations Human Rights Council despite its human rights violation.  What specific actions do you believe the international community should take to hold countries accountable for such violations especially when they are members of prominent global organizations like the UNHRC? 

That's an excellent point, and I completely agree with your concerns. There are several key elements to consider when addressing the issue of countries with poor human rights records being members of the United Nations and even serving on bodies like the Human Rights Council.

Firstly, it's essential to acknowledge that the United Nations was not initially created to enforce democratic values. Its primary purpose was to maintain peace and security. Human rights were meant to be a cornerstone of the United Nations, but it has historically struggled to effectively address this issue. One significant problem arises when countries with well-documented human rights violations, such as China, not only have a seat within the UN but are also elected to bodies like the Human Rights Council. This is deeply problematic because these countries, through their actions, actively contribute to human rights abuses. The fact that they can influence decisions within the very body responsible for upholding human rights is not just a matter of concern but reaches a level of absurdity.

Moreover, the issue is not exclusive to China. Countries like Cuba, with questionable human rights records, have also been elected to the Human Rights Council, which is perplexing. This situation should not be allowed to persist. The United Nations and its member states need to rethink the criteria for membership and positions within bodies like the Human Rights Council.

In an ideal world, countries with serious human rights violations would not have access to the Human Rights Council, and the criteria for membership would explicitly address a country's human rights record. Until this is achieved, there will continue to be a significant credibility gap within the United Nations, and it is our collective responsibility to work towards rectifying this issue. Given the current limitations of the United Nations, particularly when it comes to holding powerful nations accountable, especially those with veto power in the Security Council like China, it becomes imperative for democratic countries to explore alternative mechanisms for global governance.

Given the constraints within the United Nations, particularly due to China's role and influence, it is increasingly evident that more effective measures are needed to hold countries accountable for their actions, especially concerning human rights violations.One such proposal involves democratic nations uniting to establish an alternative international framework, whether it is a reformed version of the United Nations or a distinct democratic union. Under this framework, these democracies would coordinate actions, including sanctions, diplomatic responses, and other measures aimed at addressing human rights abuses, economic interests, and individuals responsible for such actions.

The concern lies in the ability of authoritarian nations like China, Russia, and North Korea to work closely together in support of each other's agendas. In contrast, democratic nations have traditionally employed ad hoc, case-specific responses based on financial or geopolitical interests, often within exclusive groups like the G7. This limited approach leaves room for authoritarian regimes to exploit divisions and circumvent consequences.

The proposal is, therefore, a call to reevaluate the global order, gather democratic nations, and work in a more systematic and inclusive manner to uphold democratic values and human rights. By creating a united front, democratic countries can exert more significant influence on the world stage, promoting their shared values and principles more effectively.

Additionally, the reference to the European Union's model of offering incentives to countries that adhere to democratic standards serves as an example of how such an approach can foster a global environment supportive of human rights and democracy.

7. What strategies and actions do you believe are most effective in raising awareness and support for Tibet internationally? What strategies could be used?

So, I think there's quite a few. I think there's obviously what Tibetan organizations are doing, awareness, marches, protests, and all of this is great. What I'm suggesting is looking at other struggles around the world. For example, if you look at how Ukraine and Hong Kong are approaching their causes, they're gaining significant traction in their responses. I believe it's essential to study how leaders like Zelensky in Ukraine have managed to tour many countries and garner tremendous international support. His communication strategy is truly remarkable. While the situation is dire, I'm pleased to see the support he's receiving. However, when compared to our Tibetan struggle, the amount of support is disproportionate. It's positive, but every democratic struggle should receive that level of support. We should learn from how heads of state are gathering international support and attention for their causes and how other decentralized democratic movements, such as the one in Hong Kong, are effectively drawing global attention and support. Cross-learning between democratic movements around the world and better collaboration is key.

Secondly, we need to make Tibet and other democratic struggles a political topic in elections. I'm not just talking about Tibet but all democratic struggles at large. We need these issues to become major political topics. This requires political parties, and I hope to see more emerge, like Atlas, that prioritize these issues and demand a strong stance from democracies. We must form alliances with like-minded democratic nations and cut ties with passive or supportive countries. This will come with economic and political consequences, but it's necessary. We need political parties to make these causes top priorities and, in turn, governments will do the same. We are actively working on this.

I also believe that Tibetans living abroad, when they gain citizenship or residence in their host countries, can significantly advance the Tibetan cause by running for elections. For example, when Uyghur Americans run for office, it brings significant attention to the Uyghur cause. I think these strategies are crucial. Once again, I emphasize the importance of learning from and collaborating with other democratic struggles worldwide.

8. Can you please talk to us about the Atlas movement and its aim of uniting the world?

We established Atlas with a fundamental belief that strength lies in unity. This belief stems from the realization that certain global issues, such as climate change and the impact of corporations like Amazon, cannot be effectively addressed unless we work together. Even if one country makes substantial progress, it's not enough unless we all collaborate. The challenge is that global institutions like the UN often fall short in enabling citizens to come together, as they tend to operate undemocratically, and governments frequently prioritize their self-interest over the interests of humanity.

At Atlas, we decided to tackle this issue by fostering a powerful movement of individuals who join forces to advocate for meaningful change. We've now taken the step to enter the political arena. Our members are joining national political parties across the world, aiming to elect representatives who will champion a vision of a freer, fairer, and better world. These representatives will unite on a common platform, and this is why we sought to understand what political parties require in order to effectively advocate for change. We look forward to having people like you join us in this effort as we strive to bring about positive transformations.