The question of human rights is never disconnected from politics. The latest controversy over the Dalai Lama’s visa application to visit South Africa has brought the subject to the fore again. The exiled Tibetan leader has been invited to attend the former Archbishop of Cape Town and fellow Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu’s 80th birthday celebrations. He is scheduled to deliver a lecture there in the coming week. The title is “Peace and compassion as catalyst for change.” But the South African government’s reluctance to grant him a visa has generated a heated debate in the press in South Africa and abroad, including India, his home in exile since 1959. There are accusations that Pretoria is going to deny the Dalai Lama permission in order to please China.
Almost every country proclaims its commitment to human rights, but the conduct of international diplomacy is very different in practice. Freedom and human rights are sacrosanct as long as they do not test relations with friendly governments and do not come too close to home. If the Dalai Lama’s visit fails to materialize, as seems likely, this will be the second time in two years that the South African authorities have denied a visa to one of the world’s most revered figures.
In 2009, Pretoria refused him entry to attend a Nobel laureates’ conference. The reason given was that the Dalai Lama’s presence would “detract attention from the 2010 football World Cup.” Then, Desmond Tutu, a central figure in the struggle against White minority rule before the end of apartheid in 1994, denounced it as “disgraceful,” accusing the government of “shamelessly succumbing to Chinese pressure.” That event was cancelled. As on the previous occasion, Pretoria denies acting under Chinese pressure now.
That relations with China play no part in the South African government’s policy toward the Dalai Lama is difficult to believe. Pretoria’s dithering over his visa application came as South Africa’s deputy president, Kgalema Motlanthe, embarked on a mission to Beijing to attract Chinese investment. China’s clout has been important for South Africa’s entry into the club of emerging economies, Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRIC). South Africa’s “economic miracle” in less than two decades is, in large part, due to Chinese investment. The South African deputy president’s host in Beijing was Vice President Xi Jinping, tipped to be China’s next leader.
The Dalai Lama last visited South Africa in 1996. Nelson Mandela was president and post-apartheid South Africa, though struggling, was at its zenith. It would be fair to note that subsequent presidents, Thabo Mbeki and Alfred Zuma, are no Mandela, who is now too old and frail to be active in public life. From the heights of idealism and adulation for Mandela and his country, South Africa has entered the arena of twenty-first century geopolitics and alliances based on immediate self-interest. In the first six months of 2011, South African exports to China amounted to nearly 40 billion rands; imports from China were a little more than that. The South African economy is booming. Like other emerging countries, South Africa plays an increasingly important role in the geopolitics of the African continent and beyond. Not even Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama can be allowed to get in the way.
It is necessary to cast our eyes beyond the current topic of concern and remember other examples of how geopolitical considerations undermine the principle of decency and rationale underpinning justice and morality. In October 2009, Barack Obama canceled a meeting with the Dalai Lama in Washington, as the Chinese official campaign against him took on a particularly aggressive tone. Obama thus became the first American president not to welcome the Dalai Lama in the White House since 1990. Stung by widespread criticism and amid worsening relations with Beijing over a multibillion dollar weapons deal between the United States and Taiwan, the U.S. president did meet the Dalai Lama in 2010.
In 2008, Gordon Brown, then British prime minister, chose not to meet the Tibetan spiritual leader at his official residence, 10 Downing Street, for fear of offending the Chinese leadership. Instead, Brown had a brief meeting with him at the official residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Australian prime minister, Julia Gillard, also refused to see him, as did the Estonian prime minister and speaker of parliament this year.
The South African government’s failure not to even respond to the Dalai Lama’s visa application is extraordinary. It is offensive to him and offensive to Desmond Tutu, who invited him. It is another episode in a long sequence of timid submissions by world leaders in the face of China’s muscular diplomacy and the West’s decline. That we should witness the absence of real leadership that will stand by what is right is a tragedy.