As the police fire rubber bullets at protestors, the United Kingdom must remember its duties to Hong Kong
Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission Fiona Bruce MP says the UK should call on the Hong Kong government to call off the crackdown against peaceful protestors and should also call for the urgent and meaningful reconsideration of the Extradition Law proposals.
One million Hong Kongers took to the streets on Sunday in the biggest protest since the city's handover by the United Kingdom in 1997 on the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration.
The protestors' call was for the Hong Kong government to drop proposals for an Extradition Law which would allow people to be extradited from Hong Kong to mainland China. Given the routine use of forced confession, torture and the virtual guarantee of a conviction in mainland Chinese courts, concerns about such a legislative change are reasonable.
What has fired protestors’ complaints is that this is the latest in a continuous stream of government actions in Hong Kong over recent years aimed at steadily eroding fundamental rights and democratic freedoms. These have seen booksellers abducted, a political party banned, democratically elected representatives prevented from taking their seats in the Hong Kong Legislative Council, and political protestors imprisoned.
The handover agreement, the Sino-British Joint Declaration, states that the rights and freedoms of Hong Kong’s people should remain unchanged. Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary in the run up to the city’s handover to China, recently noted that in order to ensure that the fundamental rights of people in Hong Kong were preserved, the “negotiators from both China and the UK made a conscious decision” not to include provisions allowing people to be extradited from Hong Kong to mainland China.
He adds that “many of the facts that were relevant in the 1980s and 1990s remain the same today, and therefore there seems little reason to change the legislation in the manner that the Hong Kong government proposes.” People are protesting because the Hong Kong government have decided to push through with this legislation regardless.
On Wednesday, tens of thousands occupied the streets peacefully again. Even employees of Deloitte, HSBC and a law firm were allowed to take hours off to attend, reflecting the concerns of the business and legal community about these proposals. Witnesses say it was initially like a recurrence of the peaceful 2014 Occupy protests and that a festive atmosphere prevailed until the police began to cordon off protestors and forcibly disperse the protest.
Apparently, no attempt was made to isolate any perceived threat, with the police choosing instead to view the entire protest as a threat. Tear gas and pepper spray was used, and shotguns discharged into the air. There are reports of rubber bullets being fired, and that a student and a member of the news organisation RTHK were shot in the head - reports suggest that more people may have been shot.
One student, who attends a UK university and was at home in Hong Kong for recess, said this today in an email to the human rights organisation, Hong Kong Watch: "After 16:30, tear gas has been used and the new 'Raptors' police force were used to push back the protestors with batons. Then only minutes ago, around 17:05, plastic pellets were fired without warning, as protocol is normally to raise a black banner before using such lethal force. One teenager was shot in the eye and was bleeding on the ground, he is currently being treated as I write this."
Later that day, the Hong Kong Chief Executive has branded the demonstration a “riot”. In recent years, Hong Kong courts have sentenced young political activists to up to seven years for rioting, and there are fears that there may be an aim to incarcerate a number of young people, and so frighten off ordinary Hong Kongers from joining such protests again to make their voices heard.
Some protestors are saying that the police have lost control. One said: “Whilst it is uncertain that the Tamar Park confrontation would become Tiananman Square 2.0, the Hong Kong police force is certainly losing grip – both mentally and physically. The police’s aggression continues to rise…” One video of a group of 10 police officers attacking a young man provides interesting view.
Another young man said: “I write to you as the situation is dire and any attention from international media is greatly appreciated.”
The time is coming for a more serious and coordinated international diplomatic challenge to what is happening in Hong Kong today. The United Kingdom has a legal and moral duty to lead the way in this, in view of the terms of the Sino-British Joint Declaration. We should start by calling on the Hong Kong government to call off the crackdown against peaceful protestors and should also call for the urgent and meaningful reconsideration of these Extradition Law proposals. There is still time for the Hong Kong government to change course, but the clock is ticking.
Fiona Bruce is the Conservative MP for Congleton, and the Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission
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