Washington, 31 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Despite objections from the Chinese government, representatives of Tibet for the first time have succeeded in gaining accreditation at a United Nations-sponsored meeting of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). And they have used this opportunity to denounce Beijing for what they call its policy of "apartheid" against the Tibetan people.
The United Nations secretariat this week gave official accreditation to a coalition of Tibetan exile groups to attend a meeting of non-governmental organizations in Durban, South Africa, in advance of the government-level World Conference Against Racism that opens there today.
As they have done in the past, the People's Republic of China attempted to deny the group this form of official recognition, but this time China -- a permanent member of the UN Security Council -- was unable to prevent Tibetan representatives from taking part.
On 29 August, Jampal Chosang, the head of the Tibetan coalition taking part in the NGO sessions, said China has introduced "a new form of apartheid" in Tibet because "Tibetan culture, religion, and national identity are considered a threat" to Beijing's policies and control.
The Tibetans also distributed reports prepared by the Tibetan government-in-exile that accuse China of "widespread, systematic racial discrimination" as well as destroying Tibetan culture and torturing and killing political opponents.
The simple fact the Tibetans succeeded in gaining accreditation represents a major breakthrough. Being allowed a seat at such meetings often has been a first step for national movements, including the Baltic countries in Soviet times and East Timor now, that successfully challenged major powers.
That is because such accreditation creates a precedent that Tibetans will invoke and that the international bureaucracy may be unwilling or unable to reverse. And consequently the Tibetans now can reasonably expect that they will participate at other non-governmental meetings and also, over the longer term, at a higher level.
Groups like the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet understand that.
John Ackerly, the president of the group, was the first to call the media's attention to the fact that being seated in Durban represents a major step forward for the Tibetan cause.
Moreover, other governments and national movements around the world now are likely to understand how important accreditation is for the Tibetans and be more willing to include Tibetans in meetings that they organize. With each such invitation, the Tibetans will gain stature.
The Beijing government understands this too, but it may have concluded that what happened in South Africa is a minor inconvenience that it can soon reverse.
Such a conclusion is almost certainly wrong. At any rate, after Durban, any future Chinese move against Tibet and its people is likely to prove more costly than past actions have been.