Tibet’s Status Under International Law

Eckart Klein
University of Potsdam

To date the opinion amongst the international community – including the Federal Republic of Germany – has apparently been that Tibet is legally Chinese territory.

Contrary to this opinion, I have difficulties in finding a legal title which could justify this claim to Tibet by the People’s Republic of China. An act of territorial acquisition is necessary, however, since there were no historical ties between China and Tibet which might have made a long-standing, justified affiliation of Tibet to China a possibility. Although there have been times during which Tibet was more or less strongly dependent on China – which international practice at the time described via the concept of “suzerainty” – Tibet thereby never forfeited its sovereignty. Suzerainty refers to a specific situation of dependency between two nations under international law, i.e. precisely not a national/constitutional law relationship.

Yet even this “suzerainty” ended in 1911 with the fall of the Manchu Dynasty in imperial China. Tibet exhibited all the characteristics of a state in the period until 1950: Tibet concluded (as it had before as well) international law agreements and exchanged ambassadors with other countries.

Neither the military invasion by PRC troops in 1950 nor the de facto annexation of Tibet’s territory into the Chinese federation could have constituted an act of territorial acquisition under international law. The consent of the Tibetan people, which might have retroactively justified an annexation, was also never given. The so-called Seventeen-Point Agreement of 1951 also in no way constitutes such consent, since, as a contract signed under duress, it is legally invalid.

Whether the Tibetan leadership will insist on Tibet’s international law independence and sovereignty is another question. As a “people”, the population of Tibet is the sole bearer of the right to self-determination and can therefore choose, according to its own free and true will, its political status internally and externally. Until this has been done, the question of Tibet’s political status – whether sovereign, autonomous or “part of China” – remains open. It is therefore only logical that H.H. the Dalai Lama intends to have the Tibetan people decide this in a referendum. I find it inadmissible and inconsistent with the Tibetan people’s right to self-determination for other international law actors – states and international organisations – to consider this status question as already resolved.  ■


Prof. Dr. iur. Eckart Klein held the Chair of Constitutional, International and European Law at the University of Potsdam. In 1995 he was heard as an expert on Tibet before the External Affairs Committee of the German parliament.

Together with Prof. Kretzmer he is in charge of the project “The UN Human Rights Committee: Its Role in the German and Israeli Legal Systems and in International Protection in Human Rights”. Prof. Klein gives regular lectures at the St. Thomas University School of Law in Miami, Florida (LL.M. Program “Intercultural Human Rights”).

Published in Tibet-Forum 2/1995.
With kind permission from the publisher.

English translation: Christopher Hamacher
Header image: Mount Kailash. © Olaf Schubert

See Also

  • Nirmai C. Sinha: Historical Status of Tibet. This article represents second half of the author’s lecture Tibet and its Historical Status delivered at the Bhagalpur University on 14 September 1963: a part of the data detailed here was presented by the author in a review article in France-Asie (Tokyo:Japan) January-April 1963
  • Michael van Walt van Praag: The Status of Tibet. History, Rights, and Prospects in International Law. Westview Press, Boulder/Colorado 1987
  • Warren W. Smith Jr.: China’s Tibet? Autonomy or Assimilation. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Lanham, Boulder, New York, Toronto, Plymouth/UK 2008
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  • TIBET. Anhörung des Auswärtigen Ausschusses des Deutschen Bundestages. ZUR SACHE: Themen parlamentarischer Beratung, 1/96. 19. Juni 1995. Herausgeber: Deutscher Bundestag, Referat Öffentlichkeitsarbeit, Bonn 1996. (Prof. Dr. Klein: S. 46 ff) - dito: Tibet-Resolution: Deutscher Bundestag, 13. Wahlperiode, Drucksache 13/4445, 23. 04. 1996 (S. 93–95)
  • TIBET: The Position in International Law. Report of the Conference of International Lawyers on Issues relating to Self-Determination and Independence for Tibet, London 6–10 January, 1993. Edited by Robert McCorquodale and Nicholas Orosz. Edition Hansjörg Mayer, Stuttgart, London, Serindia, London 1994
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  • Tibet wasn’t ours, says Chinese scholar – DNA