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In One Part of the Burning World:
Dag Hammarskjöld, The United Nations, and Tibet
Roger Lipsey

The following is excerpted from Roger Lipsey’s new published book, DAG HAMMARSKJÖLD FOR THE 21ST CENTURY, University of Michigan Press in 2013.

The question of Tibet seems to have been first publicly raised with Dag Hammarskjöld, second secretary-general of the United Nations, at a press conference in April 1959. The journalist’s question: “I should like to ask you … whether you could tell us something about the United Nations and Tibet, in view of the present difficulty there.” Hammarskjöld initially let the question go and responded to an unrelated issue also raised by the journalist—who came back insistently. “Could you answer my first question about Tibet?” To which he responded as he sometimes did when an issue wasn’t on the UN agenda: “I know just as much about Tibet as you do, from the newspapers.” A look at the New York Times for March 20th and thereafter yields headlines such as “Tibetans Battle Chinese in Lhasa: Populace Joins Rebel Group in Resisting Red Attempt to Seize Dalai Lama.” Later in the press conference another journalist reverted to the issue yet again, saying that when UN member nations use force, they have to “bear the full brunt of world public opinion in this House. Now where do you focus the weight of world public opinion where a country not represented in the United Nations uses troops, such as in Tibet?” At that point, Hammarskjöld obviously felt constrained to respond properly. He described the two stumbling blocks that would impede any UN debate about Tibet: “I think that a member nation can discuss such an issue within the United Nations,” he said. “In that sense the United Nations can be the focus of world opinion….

Dag Hammarskjold_01But you should remember that there are two complications in the matter. The discussion would refer to a non­member nation [The People’s Republic of China]…. And secondly it refers to a relationship within that country which under international law, constitutional law, is such a complex one that I think … the famous Article 2.7 might be invoked by some parties.” He was referring to Chapter 1, Article 2.7 of the UN Charter: “Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state or shall require the Members to submit such matters to settlement under the present Charter.”

The press corps was responding in April to news of the revolt that had begun in Lhasa on March 10th, pitting Tibetan patriots against the Chinese army of occupation and regional government. The reported violence and destruction was terrible. While there had been armed resistance for years in eastern Tibet, this culminating incident had begun when Chinese officials appeared to be laying a trap for the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and political leader of Tibet, by insisting that he come unprotected and without customary ceremony to a festival. Thousands of Tibetans rallied to protect him and violence broke out. The hard­fought revolt that spread throughout the country led to tens of thousands of deaths and casualties. With the agreement and urging of his government, the Dalai Lama secretly left Lhasa on March 17th and crossed into India on the 31st; the difficulty and dangers of his mountain journey have become legend. “We must have been a pitiful sight,” the Dalai Lama later wrote, “to the handful of Indian guards that met us at the border—eighty travelers, physically exhausted and mentally wretched from our ordeal.” In North India he and soon some twelve thousand refugees—the first wave of many—were permitted to establish a government in exile and community. This was a critical turning point in events that had begun nearly a decade earlier, in November 1950, when Chinese communist troops invaded eastern Tibet and instituted an increasingly harsh and encompassing occupation. At that time the Kashag, or cabinet, of the Tibetan government had written to the United Nations an eloquent appeal for help based on the hope, however remote, that the United Nations police action then under way against North Korean aggression modeled a similar force that could come to the aid of Tibet. As again in 1959, the appeal was taken up by a small member nation, El Salvador, and submitted to the General Committee of the General Assembly, which was responsible for debating and voting on issues proposed for inclusion in plenary sessions of the Assembly.

Dag Hammarskjold_02_mapDetail from Map of Hindoostan, Farther India, China, and Tibet, 1864, Samuel August Mitchell (1792–1868)

The debate that ensued in the General Committee rehearsed nearly all of the arguments that would be brought to bear in Hammarskjöld’s time. There were impassioned pleas for justice for a small, overwhelmed, and uniquely dignified nation. There were impassioned assertions that Tibet was a legitimate province of China, therefore wholly removed from UN concern by Article 2.7—and furthermore the Chinese were engaged in a civilizing mission to democratize centuries of serf­like oppression of the common people by the monasteries and land­owning nobles, and still further, the People’s Republic of China, not a member nation, wasn’t present to defend itself. Finally, there were various shades of temporizing that acknowledged the humanitarian concern but saw fit for one reason or another to do nothing. Some member nations couldn’t dare to upset China; others with their own colonial problems had no wish to open the door to UN debate at some later time. The Indian ambassador, whose country would later prove crucial to the rescue of Tibetan culture, expressed his government’s certainty that “the Tibetan question could still be settled by peaceful means…. His delegation considered that the best way of obtaining that objective was to abandon, for the time being, the idea of including that question in the agenda of the General Assembly.” On December 8, 1950, El Salvador passed to all delegations through the secretary-general a deeply saddened note from the Kashag. “We have heard with grave concern and dismay of the United Nations decision setting aside the discussion of our appeal…. The agony and despair which prompted us to seek … assistance … will be better appreciated by those nations whose liberty is always at the mercy of being jeopardized by the aggressive designs of their more powerful neighbors….”

Dag Hammarskjold_03_maozedongThe 14th Dalai Lama (r) and the Panchen Lama (l) with Mao Zedong, 1954

Nearly ten years passed, immensely difficult years for Tibet ending with the exile of the Dalai Lama and his government. On September 9, 1959, Hammarskjöld received a long cable written by the Dalai Lama from New Delhi. “Your Excellency,” he began, “It is with the deepest regret that I am informing you that the act of aggression by Chinese forces has not terminated. On the contrary, the area of aggression has been substantially extended with the result that practically the whole of Tibet is under the occupation of the Chinese forces. I and my Government have made several appeals for peaceful and friendly settlement but so far these appeals have been completely ignored. In these circum­stances and in view of the inhuman treatment and crimes against humanity and religion to which the people of Tibet are being subjected, I solicit the immediate intervention of the United Nations….” The cable goes on to detail the legal basis for recognizing Tibet’s independence from China and the oppression of the Tibetan people. “The sufferings which my people are under­going are beyond description and it is imperatively necessary that this wanton and ruthless murder of my people should be immediately brought to an end. It is in these circumstances that I appeal to you….”

There is no need to follow closely the next few weeks of discreet diplomacy setting the stage for open debate, but the result is clear: on September 29th two small member nations, Ireland and the Federation of Malaya, proposed “The Question of Tibet” for inclusion on the agenda of the General Assembly. “After study of the material available,” their ambassadors wrote, “the conclusion is inescapable that there exists prima facie evidence of an attempt to destroy the traditional way of life of the Tibetan people and the religious and cultural autonomy long recognized to belong to them….” The topic was sent to the General Committee, where it had died a decade earlier, and the debate was on— with previous points of view duly marshaled plus a very few new ideas, all delivered with greater vehemence by opponents of inclusion and greater eloquence from Tibet’s friends. The Malayan ambassador, Ismail Kamil, and Ireland’s Frank Aiken were genuinely heroic in their insistence on inclusion and in the felt words and clarity of mind they brought to bear in the course of bitter debates. “… The moral conscience of mankind … represents a force which must be reckoned with even though it is an intangible force,” Aiken said. “If the Assembly demonstrates that it is prepared to condemn wholesale violations of human rights, wherever they are perpetrated, it will be maintaining intact that invisible but effective barrier against further acts of oppression which is constituted by a vigilant world opinion.”

Dag Hammarskjold_04_leavingtibetHis Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama (on white horse) during his escape from Tibet in 1959

The debate in the General Committee reached epic proportions—over Tibet, where no one had ever been. It was as if the soul of the world had slipped into UN headquarters alongside this issue and now stood trial. Some delegates must have recalled the inability of the UN in 1957 to defend Hungary against Soviet invasion. Older delegates would have recalled the appeal of Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia in 1936 to the League of Nations: who could forget that diminutive man of large dignity, pleading in vain for the League to act against Mussolini’s vile attack on his ancient country? On behalf of another remote and ancient nation, the battle was now fiercely engaged. With obviously genuine feeling, ambassadors argued their values and those of the common Charter; they reasoned with utmost attention; the West and the Soviet bloc, Asia and the South all found their voices, humane or derisive, freely thoughtful or sourly doctrinaire. It was astonishing—over Tibet, where no one had ever been.

In the absence at that time of the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine developed by the UN in recent years, delegates who cared for the sufferings of Tibet provided spontaneous first drafts through their words of advocacy; they felt the doctrine in their bones, although a half-century would pass before it became a UN norm and a basis for action.

A vote on inclusion was taken on October 12th: forty-three in favor, eleven opposed, twenty-five abstentions. That put Tibet on the agenda. In the follow-up discussion which is customary in the General Committee, Frank Aiken of Ireland once again spoke with distinction and moral force: “Our mind revolts against any idea that, by reason of legalistic claims which were never freely accepted by the Tibetan people, we should treat Tibet … as an internal Chinese question which we have no right even to discuss…. I cannot conceive how any nation which has undergone foreign rule, whether for long or short periods, can regard the past period of Chinese imperial hegemony over Tibet as depriving Tibet of a claim on our attention now….” He was speaking for Tibet as an Irishman who had fought his country’s war of independence against the British.

The topic was taken up by the General Assembly in its sessions of October 20–21, during which Aiken spoke from his acute recognition that a trial of the UN itself was under way. “The question of Tibet is a test case, a challenge to this Assembly. If, despite our Charter, a powerful country may force its will, with impunity and without protest, upon a distinctive people one-hundredth part of its size, by what principle could it be denied the right to impose its will by force upon a nation one-tenth or one-half its size? … This Organization represents the experience of our evolving world order. It cannot escape its responsibilities…. I have little doubt that the vast majority of the ordinary citizens in every country represented in this Assembly would not wish that what has been done in Tibet should be done to themselves or to their own children….” His were nearly the last words spoken before a vote was taken on a resolution submitted by his own delegation and the Federation of Malaya: forty-five in favor, nine opposed (the entire Soviet bloc), twenty-six abstentions—adequate to pass the resolution. Its core language referred to the traditional autonomy of the Tibetan people and “call[ed] for respect for the fundamental human rights of the Tibetan people and for their distinctive cultural and religious life.” There was no mention of China; it wasn’t needed. The resolution would have no practical impact whatever on the Tibetans’ sufferings, but the long debate had stirred and informed public opinion. Tibet would not be forgotten.

Where was Hammarskjöld? Witnessing from his high seat in the General Assembly and doubtless active behind the scene, he never spoke publicly. He had known from the beginning that the UN would be unable to act, apart perhaps from providing assistance to refugees. According to a Tibetan historian, well before the debate he had privately made clear to the British Foreign Office that he wished to “create the impression that some thought was being given to Tibet at the UN” and to reassure the public— Tibet was much in the news—that the UN was not “in a state of innocence” where Tibet was concerned. This sounds calculated, and of course it is. But in practice he set the drama in motion by distributing the Dalai Lama’s communication, and surely he had something to do with the readiness of Ireland and the Federation of Malaya to champion Tibet.

Earlier in the year, he had written a few lines in his journal that come to mind:

Conscious of the reality of evil and the tragedy of individual lives, and conscious, too, of the demand that life be conducted with decency.

The fit is perfect with the debate on the Question of Tibet, its scale and occasional grandeur, and its powerlessness to change fate.

The Dalai Lama reverted twice more to Hammarskjöld and through him to the UN, in 1960 and 1961, and twice more the General Assembly essentially reenacted the debates of 1950 and 1959. Nikita Khrushchev was in New York in October 1960 to bring a series of strident messages to the General Assembly. While he took little notice of the Question of Tibet, he did take a passing swipe at it in an Assembly speech on disarmament. “Why should you raise the Tibetan question?” he asked. “But … do raise it, if you need to. While moving about in New York, I see always Americans chewing gum—this is their habit. Now instead of gum you want to give the Assembly delegates a piece of cotton for them to sit and chew on. Those who have an itch for this may do it, but we are not going to.” There were finer voices than this one. Frank Aiken again voiced the moral center. “My delegation is not concerned with the rights of white men, or brown men, or black men: we are concerned with the rights of men. Those rights are universal and immutable…. Looking around this Assembly, and looking at my own delegation, I think how many benches would be empty here in this hall if it had always been agreed that when a small nation … fell into the grip of a major Power, no one could ever raise the case here; that once they were a subject nation, they must always remain a subject nation….”

On December 20, 1961—Hammarskjöld had died in an air crash several months earlier—the General Assembly adopted a resolution by a majority of fifty-six votes to “solemnly renew its call for the cessation of practices which deprive the Tibetan people of their fundamental human rights and freedoms including their right to self-determination.” There the matter lay, unresolved. If there was a victory here, it was of Hammarskjöld’s kind. He once wrote of rare occasions when “the distinction between triumph and tragedy is totally obliterated in a victorious and affirmative humanity.” Certain nations and their diplomats— preeminently Ireland and the Federation of Malaya—had demonstrated persevering humanity, all the while knowing that little or nothing could be achieved. Unforgettable. The Dalai Lama’s publication of the transcript of UN proceedings on the Question of Tibet 1950–1961, including every kind and unkind word—the Soviet ambassador once referred to “this Tibetan vaudeville”—was itself an unforgettable act. What other national leader would have done that?



TIBET IN THE UNITED NATIONS 1950­1961, issued by the Bureau of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, New Delhi, no date

Tsering Shakya, THE DRAGON IN THE LAND OF SNOWS: A History of Modern Tibet Since 1947, New York: Columbia University Press, 1999

Melvyn C. Goldstein, THE SNOW LION AND THE DRAGON: China, Tibet, and the Dalai Lama, Berkeley and Los Angeles: The University of California Press, 1997

Brian Urquhart, HAMMARSKJÖLD, New York: Knopf, 1972 


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