Reflections On the Challenges of the 21st Century

The following article is from the Summer, 1994 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.

by H.H. the Dalai Lama

As the twentieth century draws to a close, we find that the world has grown smaller. The world's people have become almost one community. Political and military alliances have created large multinational groups; industry and international trade have produced a global economy. Worldwide communications are eliminating ancient barriers of distance, language and race. We are also being drawn together by the grave problems we face: overpopulation, dwindling natural resources, military build-up and aggression, and terrible human rights situations.

I believe that to meet the challenges of the next century, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. Each of us must learn to work not just for his or her own self, family or nation, but for the benefit of all mankind. It is very old-fashioned to think in terms of my nation, or my country. Universal responsibility is the real key to human survival.

Whether we like it or not, we have all been born on this earth as part of one great family. Rich or poor, educated or uneducated, black, white or yellow, belonging to one nation, religion, ideology or another, ultimately each of us is just a human being like everyone else. We have the common human needs and concerns. We all seek happiness and try to avoid suffering regardless of our race, religion, sex or political status. Human beings, indeed all sentient beings, have the right to pursue happiness and live in peace and in freedom.

As free human beings we can use our unique intelligence and try to understand ourselves and our world. But if we are prevented from using our creative potential, we are deprived of one of the basic characteristics of a human being. It is often the most gifted, dedicated and creative members of our society who become victims of human rights abuses. Thus the political, social, cultural and economic developments of a society are obstructed by the violations of human rights. Therefore, the protection of these rights and freedoms is of immense importance both for the individuals affected and for the development of the society as a whole.

If we accept that others have an equal right to peace and happiness as ourselves, do we not have a responsibility to help those in need? Respect for fundamental human rights is as important to the people of Africa and Asia as it is to those in Europe or the Americas. All human beings, whatever their cultural or historical background, suffer when they are intimidated, imprisoned or tortured. The question of human rights is so fundamentally important that there should be no difference of views on this. We must, therefore, insist on a global consensus not only on the need to respect human rights worldwide, but also on the definition of these rights.

Some governments have contended that the standards of human rights laid down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are those advocated by the West and cannot be applied to Asia and other parts of the Third World because of differences in culture and differences in social and economic development. I do not share this view and I am convinced that the majority of Asian people do not support this view either, for it is the inherent nature of all human beings to yearn for freedom, equality and dignity and they have an equal right to achieve that.

I do not see any contradiction between the need for economic development and the need for respect of human rights. The rich diversity of cultures and religions should help to strengthen the fundamental human rights in all communities. Underlying this diversity are fundamental human principles that bind all of us as members of the same human family. Diversity and traditions can never justify the violations of human rights. Thus, discrimination of persons from a different race, of women, and of weaker sections of the society may be traditional in some regions, but if they are inconsistent with universally recognized human rights, these forms of behavior should change. The universal principles of equality of all human beings must take precedence.

Artificial barriers that have divided nations and peoples have fallen in recent times. With the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, the East-West division which has polarized the whole world for decades has now come to an end. We are experiencing a time filled with hope and expectations. Yet there still remains a major gulf at the heart of the human family. By this I am referring to the North-South divide. If we are serious in our commitment to the fundamental principles of equality, principles which I believe lie at the heart of the concept of human rights, today's economic disparity can no longer be ignored. It is not enough to merely state that all human beings must erjoy equal dignity. This must be translated into action. We have a responsibility to find ways to reduce this gap.

In this context, another important issue is overpopulation. From a Buddhist point of view, the life of every sentient being is precious, and birth control is not favored. But today we are facing a situation where the growing number of people poses a threat to the survival of humanity. Therefore, I personally feel we need to be pragmatic and adopt birth control measures in order to ensure the quality of life today in southern countries, and protect the quality of life for future generations. Of course, as a Buddhist monk, I favor nonviolent forms of birth control.

Another issue which is very dear to my vision of the future is global demilitarization. This may sound idealistic to many people. I am aware that it needs a process of rethinking, education, and a step-by-step approach. Most important, I believe, is to reevaluate our concept of military establishment. National forces should be gradually dissolved and collective forces on a regional basis should be formed. An important further step toward the goal of global demilitarization is an international ban on arms trade and the expansion of demilitarized zones in all parts of the world. Recent progress on dismantling nuclear arsenals and nuclear test bans are encouraging and significant developments.

Many dictators in the developing world have survived by weapons and armaments supplied by northern countries. So much money has gone towards buying guns instead of feeding people and meeting basic human and environmental needs. Costa Rica, a country which has followed the demilitarized path, has done quite well in areas such as education and health compared to neighboring countries. On the other hand, in Somalia for example, it is such a tragedy that there is no shortage of guns and bullets, but a severe lack of food. In such situations, thousands of innocent people can die, including many innocent children.

Even in your own country, guns and violence are too prevalent. And it seems that a contributing factor is the availability of inexpensive automatic weapons sold to American consumers by companies owned by the People's Liberation Army. Those cheap weapons are not only harming Americans, but also financially contributing to the army repressing my people in Tibet.

I have always envisioned the future of my own country, Tibet, as a neutral, demilitarized sanctuary where weapons'are forbidden and the people live in harmony with nature. I have called this a Zone of Ahimsa or nonviolence. This is not merely a dreamit is precisely the way Tibetans tried to live for over a thousand years before our country was tragically invaded. Also, for at least the last three hundred years, we had virtually no army. Tibet gave up the waging of war as an instrument of national policy several centuries ago.

I would also like to express my deep sense of satisfaction that elections are taking place in South Africa that allow all South Africans to participate. 1 hope and pray that peoples of all backgrounds and leaders of all communities will continue to work together toward an open, democratic society. I also had the opportunity to visit Israel recently, and there, too, I was heartened to see a process of negotiations toward a peaceful solution. Both these conflicts are being resolved through personal, face-to-face dialogue which I have always believed is essential.

Unfortunately, my efforts to resolve the situation in Tibet have not been as successful. So far, we have not been able to make a breakthrough and establish direct talks.

It has been 35 years since the Chinese took complete control of Tibet. At that time, I, along with over 100,000 fellow Tibetans, left my homeland to live in exile in India, Nepal and other parts of the globe. As a result of the invasion and the ensuing occupation, over 1.2 million of our people died of unnatural causes. Most of our monasteries, the learning centers and repositories of our cultureover 6,000 of themhave been destroyed.

Sincc that time I have pursued the cause of nonviolence and have tried in every way I know to find some reasonable accommodation with the Chinese government so that the Tibetan people can resume a life in peace and with dignity.

In 1979 Deng Xiaoping stated that all issues regarding Tibet were open for negotiationsexcept that of independence. I responded positively in agreement with the principles advanced by Mr. Deng Xiaoping with the hope that the Chinese government would be genuinely committed to negotiate on all other matters concerning the future of the six million Tibetans.

After informing the Chinese of my position on this point, through my emissaries who travelled to Beijing and met with Chinese diplomats abroad as well as through some of our foreign friends, I was hopeful that a forthright response would come from the Chinese so that we could enter into serious negotiations. My decision to make a short trip to Tibet in 1991 would have also given the Chinese government an opportunity to arrange direct meetings between me and some of their senior leaders who could have come to Tibet.

Unfortunately, the Chinese government has yet to accept any of my proposals over the last fourteen years and has yet to enter into substantive negotiations with my representatives, who remain prepared to meet with Chinese representatives anytime.

Therefore, I take this opportunity to again state my willingness to meet with any of the present members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo in a third country of mutual convenience with the sincere desire to make a breakthrough in our relationship.

On my part I am continuing with my sincere efforts to resolve the situation through negotiations. If this approach does not bring about a positive result, then I must consult my people over the future course of our freedom struggle. However, my commitment to nonviolence is fundamental and there will be no deviation from this path under my leadership.

I think we can say that, because of the lessons we have begun to learn, the next century will be friendlier, more harmonious and peaceful. I am very hopeful. At the same time, I believe that every individual has a responsibility to help guide our global family in the right direction. Good wishes are not enough; we have to assume responsibility. Large human movements spring from individual initiatives. I therefore believe strongly that it is the individual who makes the difference.

This is the text of the address to the New York Lawyers Alliance for World Security and the Council of Foreign Relations delivered in New York City on April 27, 1994. Reprinted from Tibetan Bulletin.

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