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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 December 2018

Rights groups protest over Unesco heritage status for Tibetan area

Protected status could give Beijing grounds to force out nomadic residents of plateau region

BEIJING // Tibetan rights groups have criticised the UN cultural organisation's decision to extend world heritage status to a stretch of plateau in a heavily Tibetan area, saying it reinforces Chinese control in the region.

The groups argue the Unesco designation will allow Chinese authorities to remove residents from the area, known as Hoh Xil in Qinghai province, and threaten its environment and nomadic culture.

"The [Unesco] committee ignored the reality that Tibetans, and nomads in particular, are stewards of the landscape whose role is essential to sustaining the wildlife," said Kai Mueller, executive director of the International Campaign for Tibet.

The area has an elevation of more than 4,500 metres and is home to several endemic species as well as the entire migratory route of the endangered Tibetan antelope.

The designation of protected areas does not give Unesco any powers of enforcement, but has proved to be controversial in areas plagued by conflicting territorial claims.

On Friday, Unesco also designated an ancient shrine in the occupied West Bank, revered by both Jews and Muslims, as a "Palestinian World Heritage Site in Danger", angering Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu who called the decision "delusional".

The Tibetan rights groups argue the Unesco designation could accelerate Chinese efforts to move nomads into settled villages.

"Unesco is supposed to uphold and safeguard the world's culture, but this shameful decision will do exactly the opposite and will ultimately assist China in denying Tibetans their fundamental rights," said Pema Yoko, executive director of the advocacy group Students for a Free Tibet.

At a UN forum in March, China was pressed by members to ease its clampdown on Tibet, in a rare show of direct criticism from member countries. There are also large Tibetan communities in neighbouring provinces like Qinghai and Sichuan.

China's foreign ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Saturday.

China rejects criticism from rights groups and exiles who accuse it of trampling on the religious and cultural rights of the Tibetan people, saying its rule has brought prosperity to a once-backward region.

Chinese representatives argue the new Unesco status is designed to help protect the area and will not impact traditional culture.

According to the International Campaign for Tibet, Chinese representatives on Friday circulated a statement saying they would fully respect the herders and their culture.

A Unesco spokeswoman said the Chinese government had made a commitment that no forced relocation would be undertaken.

"They also commit to work with the communities and other stakeholders to ensure protection and management of this site," she said.

China now has more than 50 Unesco world heritage sites.