Video: Dalai Lama receives human rights award

updated 10/6/2009 6:11:30 PM ET 2009-10-06T22:11:30

Lawmakers honored the Dalai Lama with a human rights award Tuesday even as President Barack Obama faced harsh criticism for delaying a meeting with the exiled Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader.

The Dalai Lama and Obama will not meet until after Obama visits Chinese President Hu Jintao in Beijing in November. China reviles the Dalai Lama and pressures foreign governments not to meet with him. The Obama administration, which needs Chinese support for crucial foreign policy, economic and environmental goals, wants to establish friendly ties between Hu and Obama during next month's visit.

While the Obama administration was accused of "kowtowing" to Beijing's wishes, supporters of the Dalai Lama gathered at the Capitol as the Tibetan monk was given an award in memory of the late Rep. Tom Lantos of California, a Holocaust survivor and longtime champion of human rights.

The Dalai Lama said the award encourages him, at 74, to dedicate the rest of his life to the "promotion of human affection and compassion, and equality and basic human rights in Tibet, or in mainland China, or everywhere."

Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, said at the ceremony that "unless we speak out for human rights in China and in Tibet, we lose all moral authority to talk about human rights anywhere in the world."

Many, however, urged Obama to host the Dalai Lama during his visit.

Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., said in a speech in Congress that not inviting the Dalai Lama to the White House this week could lead to other foreign leaders who are worried about angering China brushing off similar chances to meet with him.

"I call on the president to stand side-by-side with His Holiness, a man of peace, and align America once again with the oppressed, not the oppressors," Wolf said.

The Dalai Lama has met with the last three sitting U.S. presidents during his visits to Washington. Although China calls him a "wolf in monk's robes" who seeks to split Tibet from the rest of China, the Dalai Lama says he merely wants genuine autonomy for Tibetans.

Obama must balance his efforts to develop ties with China with his desire to support the Dalai Lama. He also needs to overcome criticism by those who feel his administration is not doing enough to push Beijing to better address human rights complaints.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Tuesday that a strong relationship between the United States and China benefits Tibet because it allows the U.S. to talk to China about the concerns of the Tibetan people.

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Those who advocate for Tibet see the Dalai Lama's White House visits as important messages of support for Tibetans and others struggling for human rights. A White House audience for the Nobel Peace Prize laureate this week, however, would have cast a shadow over Obama's talks with Hu next month.

"You only get one chance to start this the right way," Douglas Paal, a former senior Asia adviser for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, said of Obama's relationship with Hu.

Obama recognizes that how he treats the Dalai Lama will be watched closely — by Beijing, by U.S. lawmakers and voters, and by other world leaders who have been castigated by China for meeting with the Dalai Lama.

The Dalai Lama's envoy, Lodi Gyari, played down the situation, saying that there "has been no question of President Obama not, at the appropriate time, meeting His Holiness." He said in a statement that the Dalai Lama, "taking a broader and long-term perspective," agreed to delay the meeting in the hope that a cooperative U.S.-China relationship will help resolve Tibetans' grievances.

This week, the Dalai Lama also plans to meet with Maria Otero, the U.S. special coordinator for Tibetan issues.

Unlike past, private meetings with U.S. presidents, President George W. Bush attended an elaborate public ceremony in 2007 and presented the Dalai Lama with the U.S. Congress' highest civilian honor.

Some of the Dalai Lama's supporters hope Bush's break with tradition sets a precedent for future meetings.

China says Tibet has been part of its territory for four centuries. It has aggressively governed the Himalayan region since communist troops took control there in 1951. Many Tibetans claim they were effectively independent for most of their history and say Chinese rule and economic exploitation are eroding their traditional Buddhist culture.

More on: Tibet

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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