The United Kingdom returned Hong Kong to China 23 years ago on the promise that the territory would enjoy a “high degree of autonomy” under the “one country, two systems” principle for at least 50 years. For the first decade or so, China largely fulfilled that promise. But its commitment to doing so soon began to wane.
By 2014, Hong Kong’s people were protesting the government’s failure to deliver on the guarantee, included in the Basic Law, that the city’s chief executive would be elected by “universal suffrage.” In the ensuing years, booksellers offering titles critical of China’s rulers were abducted to mainland China. Pro-democracy legislators and candidates were harassed and disqualified from elections. Foreign journalists and high-profile human-rights advocates were expelled from Hong Kong or denied entry. Simon Cheng, a Hong Kong citizen who worked for the UK government, was detained for 15 days after a trip to mainland China, where he was tortured until he “confessed” to soliciting prostitution.
When Hong Kong’s citizens pushed back, they paid a steep price. The 2014 “umbrella movement” earned its name from the shields protesters used against tear gas. When even larger protests erupted last year, they were met with more extreme violence by the security forces.
Though the demonstrations were largely peaceful, especially early on, police deployed all manner of weapons – including batons and, in a few cases, live ammunition – with impunity. This past January, two UN special rapporteurs issued a communication alleging the “inappropriate use of chemical agents,” including “hazardous substances such as tear gas, pepper spray, pepper balls, and irritating chemical constituents dispersed from water cannons.”
Moreover, in February, four UN human-rights experts wrote to the Chinese government detailing evidence of harassment, intimidation, and detention of health-care workers during the protests. According to the report, “large numbers” of such workers were arrested and “hand-cuffed with zip-cords.” Even after providing identification, they were arrested for “taking part in a riot” and detained for 24 hours with no access to legal counsel, before being released on bail, pending charges. The report also highlighted “the misuse of health-care transport, facilities, and confidential information.”
The Hong Kong authorities – and the Chinese rulers who back them – have not backed down. In April, they arrested 15 of the city’s most respected pro-democracy leaders, including the “father” of the movement, the 82-year-old barrister Martin Lee. And in late May, China’s rubber-stamp legislature, the National People’s Congress, approved – by a 2,878-1 vote – the new security law for Hong Kong.
While the details of the new law have not been announced, it is known to contain provisions barring “subversion,” “secession,” or “collusion with foreign political forces” – vaguely defined crimes that offer China’s rulers legal cover to crack down on any form of dissent. For example, Hong Kong citizens who brief foreign parliamentarians, human-rights groups, or journalists could be deemed to be committing a crime. The law would also allow China’s government to set up “security organs” in Hong Kong.
Both the Hong Kong Bar Association and the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales warn that the security law would severely undermine fundamental rights, including freedom of expression, assembly, association, and religion or belief. As nearly 900 international leaders – from former prime ministers to prominent legal and human-rights experts – noted in a joint declaration, the law amounts to a “comprehensive assault” on Hong Kong’s “autonomy, rule of law, and fundamental freedoms” and a “flagrant breach” of the Sino-British Joint Declaration.
Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong and a leading organizer of the joint declaration, has declared that “defenders of liberal democracy must not stand idly by.” But what should they do? One possibility would be for the UN to establish a special envoy or a special rapporteur for human rights in Hong Kong (or both). Neither is likely to change the situation overnight, but each could provide some semblance of support or protection to the people of Hong Kong.
As a former UN special rapporteur, I know that both models have their advantages and disadvantages. A special rapporteur, appointed through a resolution by the Human Rights Council, focuses on exposing human-rights violations, and could help to achieve a kind of accountability through transparency. A special envoy is typically less vocal on human rights, but may be able to advance a political or diplomatic solution. Though China would resist – and the country has considerable clout – UN Secretary-General António Guterres could appoint an envoy on his own initiative.
The idea of creating a special envoy has wide support, including from Patten. The chairs of the foreign affairs committees in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the UK have written a letter calling for Guterres to heed this call. He should listen – and fast.
The conflict between the Chinese authorities and Hong Kong’s citizens will continue to escalate, which is why international action has become urgent. Thirty-one years after the Tiananmen Square massacre, Hong Kong is facing the real threat of Tiananmen 2.0. The UN should not wait until all that is left to be done is clean the blood off the streets.
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