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The international community must act to protect Hong Kong’s health workers

"The arrest of prominent pro-democracy politicians and increasing pressure on legislators show the Chinese Communist Party regime is tightening its grip on Hong Kong by the hour."

5 min read

Medics in Hong Kong allege a shocking campaign of harassment, intimidation and arrest by Chinese authorities. An international inquiry is urgently needed

Every Thursday we stand on our doorsteps or hang out of our windows in Britain and #ClapforCarers to celebrate our frontline healthcare workers risking their own lives to save others in the battle against COVID-19. And around the world in various forms – even if using different names – the applause for doctors, nurses and others working in health systems has never been higher, and rightly so.

Yet in Hong Kong, according to a letter from four United Nations experts to the Chinese government, healthcare workers have faced a shocking campaign of harassment, intimidation and arrest.

These allegations first came to light when a British surgeon working in Hong Kong, Darren Mann, reported them in the medical journal The Lancet last November. Along with other medics, he had been voluntarily assisting the injured in Hong Kong’s violent protests, on both sides. He and his colleagues embodied the humanitarian principle of neutrality in offering treatment to the injured regardless of who they were. They treated wounded police officers as readily as injured demonstrators.

At the beginning of January I sat in a committee room in Parliament and heard Dr Mann in person. Coming from a surgeon who has not only lived and worked in Hong Kong for over twenty years, but served in active war zones and specializes in clinical ballistics and the law of armed conflict, his evidence was compelling. When he showed a photograph of medics lined up in rows with their hands zip-tied behind them, under arrest, a chill went down my spine. If there is one flagrant violation of international humanitarian law that should never be tolerated, it is the arrest or abuse of humanitarian workers.

This week the United Nations’ experts have brought further evidence to light. After conducting their own inquiries, the UN Special Rapporteurs on physical and mental health, freedom of peaceful assembly and association and the right to privacy, together with the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, cite reports that “large numbers of healthcare workers have been arrested and hand-cuffed with zip-cords either in the vicinity of violent confrontations or in the course of performing their legitimate healthcare duties” and that even when they provided identification as healthcare workers, they were reportedly arrested by police for “taking part in a riot” and detained for 24 hours with no access to a lawyer before being released on police bail pending charges.

The experts also claim that “based on reports received, police have hindered healthcare staff at public hospitals when they perform their legitimate health duties, insisting on being present when doctors privately consult with patients, including in delivery rooms, and attempting to enter operating rooms when persons suspected to have participated in protests are due for surgery.”

Hospitals are allegedly “often patrolled by police units in full riot gear, bearing shields, batons and fire-arms loaded with beanbag rounds and rubber bullets,” they note. In addition, healthcare workers have reportedly been threatened with disciplinary action by the Public Hospital Authority in Hong Kong. In further shocking claims, the UN experts report that “undercover police officers have allegedly impersonated first-aiders to arrest injured protesters”. 

These are among the gravest abuses of humanitarian principles imaginable. Seldom even in the worst war zones do we hear of such an assault on the basic right to life and healthcare. For these reports to come from one of the world’s most advanced cities, which until recently was one of Asia’s most open, is especially shocking. 

You can’t ‘clap for carers’ when your hands are zip-tied behind your back

As the Director-General of the World Health Organisation, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, tweeted recently, “too many #HealthWorkers have lost their lives while trying to save others. Health care is #NotATarget. The principle of medical neutrality must be respected by all. Attacks on health care are attacks on humanity.”

He is right. So what should be done?

First, these claims deserve – and must receive – urgent attention from governments around the world. We are all understandably preoccupied fighting the pandemic, but at a time when we need healthcare workers more than ever, we should not sweep these reports under the carpet. They come not from activists or campaigners, but with the authority of four UN experts – and they follow concerns expressed by two other UN experts earlier this month about the misuse of teargas and toxic hazardous substances by the police. These are very serious allegations and they require urgent attention.

So: an independent inquiry is needed. Ideally that would happen in Hong Kong, by government with engagement from civil society. But as the arrest of some of Hong Kong’s most prominent pro-democracy politicians last Saturday, increasing pressure on pro-democracy legislators and the dangerous breaches of Hong Kong’s constitutional promises of autonomy in recent days show, the Chinese Communist Party regime is tightening its grip on the city by the hour. So if an inquiry cannot be held in Hong Kong, there must be an international inquiry.

Secondly, governments must be prepared to impose targeted Magnitsky-style sanctions on those responsible, directly or indirectly, for these and other serious human rights violations in Hong Kong. If we are not prepared to sanction those responsible for arresting and harassing healthcare workers, whom will we ever sanction on human rights grounds?

By publishing their letter to the Chinese authorities, the UN experts have alerted the world to these very grave allegations. It cannot be dismissed as the claims of one surgeon or the agenda of any activist organisation. It comes with the weight the UN and it is incumbent on every member state to respond accordingly. And at the very least let us remember the medics of Hong Kong when we next stand on our doorsteps or look out of our windows and applaud our National Health Service. Let us keep in mind Dr Mann’s words: “You can’t ‘clap for carers’ when your hands are zip-tied behind your back.”

Sarah Champion MP is Labour Member of Parliament for Rotherham and Chair of the House of Commons International Development Select Committee 



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