In the United Nations system, the heavyweight member countries more often than not can avoid or quash calls for action on human rights violations. This is particularly true of the permanent five members of the Security Council: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. China, for example, effectively bars the Dalai Lama from ever entering UN premises, even for ecumenical gatherings of the world’s religious leaders.

Thus it was unusual to see six leading international human rights experts fielded by the UN Human Rights Council acting jointly recently to condemn Chinese repression and harassment of Tibetan Buddhists in Sichuan province, where there is a significant ethnic Tibetan population and numerous monasteries. The sharp criticisms came from monitors on freedom of religion, freedom of opinion and expression, involuntary disappearances, arbitrary detention, minority rights and the right to freedom of assembly and association.

The monitors – all internationally recognized experts who are unpaid, independent investigators and not UN officials — faulted China for what they call “severe human rights restrictions” in a region where tensions have been rising since the spring and where monks, nuns and lay people have turned to protests and self-immolation. The Kirti monastery, with 2,500 monks, has been a particular target of Chinese intimidation. But surveillance, a heavily armed security presence inside as well as around monasteries, arrests and disappearances are taking place in other locations also.

Heiner Bielefeldt, the UN Human Rights Council “special rapporteur” on freedom of religion, said in his report that heavy-handed Chinese tactics are only exacerbating existing tensions in the province. He called the intimidation in Sichuan “counterproductive.”