The Nangpa Pass Incident (September 2006)

China’s Use of Force on Tibetan Civilians Along the Tibet-Nepal Border

“THEY ARE SHOOTING THEM LIKE DOGS.”

-Sergiu Matei, Romanian cameraman, on witnessing the shooting of Tibetan refugees on September 30. His comment was heard on his footage of the shooting that was broadcast around the world, refuting the Chinese official explanation of the incident that their police acted in self-defense.

On September 30, 2006, a group of Tibetans came under fire from Chinese People’s Armed Police troops as they were crossing the Nangpa Pass into exile in Nepal. A 17-year old Tibetan nun, Kelsang Namtso, was shot dead by Chinese police during the incident. The Tibetans were clearly visible to western climbers from advance base camp, Mount Cho Oyu, a few kilometres to the east as they crossed the glaciated pass at 18,753 feet (5,716 m), west of Mount Everest.

Kelsang Namtso was traveling as part of a much larger group of approximately 73, of which 43 Tibetans (including a seven year old child) are known to have arrived safely in exile. More than 25 others, including a number of young children, were reportedly taken into custody by Chinese People’s Armed Police personnel following the shooting. A British police officer witnessed a group of around 10-12 children being brought through advance base camp after the shooting, clearly frightened and bewildered. Contrary to this first-hand account, official statements by the Chinese authorities to concerned Western governments claimed that the children were treated well and released immediately, and that opening fire on the group of unarmed Tibetans crossing the Nangpa Pass en route into exile was part of ‘normal border management’.

ICT collected multiple eyewitness testimonies and interviewed most Tibetans from the group who safely escaped into exile in order to document and bring international attention to the incident. Climbers who witnessed Kelsang Namtso’s death told ICT that after she was shot, her body was wrapped in what appeared to be a red covering by Chinese police and dumped into a crevasse. Her body was likely to have been taken away later by security personnel. A young Tibetan man, who appeared to be injured, possibly in the shooting, was also pictured being led away by border patrols after the incident.

China’s Official Response

China responded to the shooting at the border in a statement by its official Xinhua News Agency on October 12, 2006. In this, government officials said that the Tibetans had refused orders to turn back, and that they had then attacked the People’s Armed Police. According to Xinhua, the soldiers were “forced to defend themselves.” The agency said that one person had been killed, but stated that this was due to “lack of oxygen” after being taken to the hospital. On the same day that the official account was released, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao denied knowledge of the incident.

The Chinese authorities have stated that the children were released immediately and well-treated, although a first-hand account by one of the Tibetans in the group who have since arrived in exile indicates that this was not the case.

International Outrage

Governments worldwide condemned the Chinese government and rejected its official version of the incident as a “self defense” after seeing the evidence of video footage, showing the refugees being shot in the back.

  • The United States was the first government to deliver an official diplomatic complaint to China at the Chinese Foreign Ministry in Beijing
    – US Ambassador Clark Randt, October 12, 2006
  • European Parliament resolution: “Condemns the excessive use of force by the Chinese People’s Armed Police (PAP) in firing upon unarmed Tibetan civilians, including children”; “Strongly condemns the killing of an unarmed civilian who, being below 18 years of age, was also considered a child under international law”; and “Expresses its dismay at the imprisonment of Tibetan civilians whereof 9 of them are children”. The European Parliament also urged “the Chinese authorities to conduct a full investigation into the events at Nangpa Pass and ensure that those responsible for any crimes committed there are brought to justice”.
    – European Parliament resolution was adopted on Oct 27, 2006
  • A formal European Union demarche to China followed the European Parliament’s resolution. The EU was particularly concerned about the situation of the children that were arrested. The shootings were raised the EU human rights dialogue with China in Beijing on 19 October, while Finland held the Presidency. The EU indicated a level of frustration with the lack of response from the Chinese side during the dialogue.
    – European Union demarche issued on December 19, 2006
  • Canada: The “terrible incident” was a matter of “abhorrence and dismay…Canada strongly condemns this act of violence against unarmed civilians as anegregious violation of human rights. We have formally raised these concerns [and] we will follow up further with the Chinese government and intend to reiterate Canada’s strong condemnation of this gross human rights violation.” Canada called on China to conduct a full, independent investigation and punish those responsible, as well immediately release the detained Tibetan children.
    – Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay, October 18, 2006, CANADA
  • Prominent members of the Australian, Dutch, French and Norwegian parliaments also expressed their dismay at China over the incident. British Parliamentarians voiced their concern about the “brutal and unlawful shooting by the Chinese People’s Armed Police of a group of unarmed innocent civilian Tibetans fleeing Chinese occupied Tibet” through an Early Day Motion (EDM 227), which was initiated by Harry Cohen MP and supported by more than 90 Parliamentarians.

Legal Analysis

ICT is alarmed that the actions of the People’s Armed Police troops in this case appear to suggest that shooting Tibetans crossing into Nepal is a legitimate expression of their authority. ICT is also seeking a full accounting by the Chinese government, and assurances of the safety of Tibetans from the group who may still be in the custody of the Chinese military.

ICT regards this incident as a human rights violation on the following grounds:

  • Excessive use of force
  • Failure to provide adequate safety for children under the age of eighteen

1. Excessive use of force
Available evidence including video footage and eyewitness testimony documents:

  • The group was unarmed, traveling on foot, away from the PAP
  • The group was fired upon from a distance
  • The PAP aimed and fired towards the group

The deliberate shooting of unarmed civilians violates international human rights law, including the human right to life enshrined in Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights1. It further violates standards laid out in the Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials2 and elsewhere in international law that require law enforcement officials to apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force3. In this instance, the PAP was faced with a group of unarmed civilians some distance away. No restraint was exercised and there is no evidence that the group had been warned specifically that weapons were going to be used before shots were fired as required under international standards4. Finally, in cases of self-defense as is asserted by authorities here, firearms can only be used in cases of imminent threat of death or serious injury, or to prevent a suspect’s escape when less extreme measures are insufficient5. Even if these circumstances applied to the shooting at Nangpa La Pass, which they do not, “intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.”6

2. Failure to provide adequate safety for children under the age of eighteen
The group of Tibetans fired upon by the PAP comprised at least ten young children and Kelsang Namtso, the nun confirmed killed, was 17 years old. The PAP failed to provide adequately for the safety of minors under the age of 18, in violation of China’s commitments under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which China has signed and ratified.

The Convention states that “every child has the inherent right to life”, that states “shall ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of the child” and that “No child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Neither capital punishment nor life imprisonment without possibility of release shall be imposed for offenses committed by persons below eighteen years of age.”

  1. The PRC became a signatory to the ICCPR on October 5, 1998, and has made numerous statements that it will ratify the Covenant.
  2. As a signatory, the PRC may not do anything to defeat the object and purpose of the treaty, a basic tenant of which is the right to life.
  3. Adopted by the Eighth United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders, Havana, Cuba, Aug. 27–Sept. 7, 1990.
  4. Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, principle 4.
  5. Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, principle 10.
  6. Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, principle 9.
  7. Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, principle 9.

Recommendations to Governments

  1. Condemn the excessive use of force by the Chinese People’s Armed Police (PAP) in firing upon unarmed Tibetan civilians, including children;
  2. Strongly condemn the killing of an unarmed civilian who, being below 18 years of age was a child under international law;
  3. Express concern at the imprisonment of Tibetan civilians, nine of whom are children;
  4. Urge the Chinese authorities to guarantee that the Tibetans detained during the incident are not be ill-treated in detention, and that international human rights and humanitarian law standards are being respected;
  5. Urge the Chinese authorities to immediately release all children detained during the incident;
  6. Call on the Chinese authorities to conduct a full investigation into the events at Nangpa Pass and ensure that those responsible for any crimes committed there are brought to justice;
  7. Make strong representations to the Chinese authorities on this issue within the framework of political interactions, including bilateral and human rights dialogues;
  8. Strongly council Chinese authorities that only dialogue between the Government of the PRC and the Representatives of the Dalai Lama can contribute to a peaceful and sustainable settlement for Tibet that both sides agree upon.

Recommendations to the United Nations

  1. The High Commissioner for Human Rights must intervene on the Nangpa Pass incident and seek further information of steps taken by the Chinese government to fully investigate the events there and to
    ascertain the situation of Tibetans, including children, detained at the Nangpa Pass;
  2. That the United Nations special rapporteurs on the human rights of migrants and on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions fully investigate the shooting.
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