With no sign of Hong Kong protestors letting up or the crisis being substantively resolved, the Australian Government and Parliament should each take three initial measures to stand up for democratic values, rule of law and human rights.
Images and videos of the mass protests against extradition law proposals in Hong Kong have been widely shown in Australian media. Rarely is Hong Kong so prominently on the front pages. The protests over recent months have brought millions onto the streets on a scale never seen before. Weeks on and the determination of protestors remains high, with demands unanswered and little sign of accountability from the Hong Kong government. As the crisis continues and the movement evolves into greater calls for democracy, it poses questions about how Australia should respond.
Any hopes from the Hong Kong government and the Chinese government that breaking into the Legislative Council on 1 July would turn public opinion against protestors has largely evaporated. It appears the general view of many in Hong Kong is that while they may not approve of the violence, they understand and empathise with protestors. One poll taken by the Hong Kong Economic Times found that over 80 percent supported the protestors’ actions.
The Hong Kong government’s response has failed to pacify protestors. It turns out suspending the bill or stating that it is dead, issuing an apology and using the heavily criticised and structurally flawed Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC) to conduct an investigation into the Hong Kong Police Force’s activities wasn’t going to be enough. This is especially given the high level of opposition. Protestors have specifically called for the withdrawal of the bill, retracting uses of the “riot” label for protestors, release of arrested protestors and an independent inquiry into police violence.
Those demands have expanded into calls for universal suffrage, the lack of which has contributed in large part to the current situation. What initially was a protest about the extradition bill has evolved. Graffiti on the walls of the Legislative Council during the break-in calls for freedom and reflects a distinctive Hong Kong identity, notably symbolised in the defacing of the emblem in the main Legislative Council chamber. Protestors at marches are chanting for genuine universal suffrage.
Statements by senior Hong Kong officials for the public to “move forward” highlight how disconnected many are from public opinion. There is scepticism towards calls for “dialogue” and a “new style of governance.” For several months Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who came to office on a manifesto of “we connect,” was missing in action, refusing meetings with opposition figures before the bill was suspended. Student leaders have resisted recent approaches to meet, on the grounds that the meeting would not be public and may be used to split protestors.
Hong Kong people have been consistently disenfranchised, through the disqualification of legislative council members, arbitrarily restrictions on who can stand for election, Legislative Council rule changes, banning of political parties and the consistent failure to conduct genuine consultation on legal and policy developments. People will not be so easily convinced by overtures from senior officials, given many have heard the same phrases deployed before. There is little trust.
With the most recent protest on 7 July drawing 230,000 people, there is no sign of protestors letting up or the crisis being substantively resolved. This raises questions about how Australia should respond, including to broader developments in Hong Kong in the future.
The Australian Government and Parliament should each take three initial measures.
Firstly, the Australian government should speak up more firmly and publicly on Hong Kong, reflecting Australia’s foreign policy values. The foreign minister’s statements of 12 June and 16 June 2019 were positive and welcome steps. However, Australia can be more proactive in using public channels, particularly social media, in standing up for democratic values, rule of law and human rights in Hong Kong, including reflecting Australia’s UN Universal Periodic Review recommendation last year. Germany and Canada provide good examples. Australia’s private advocacy on human rights issues needs to be better paired with public advocacy.
Secondly, the Australian government should publicly support an independent inquiry into the police violence against anti-extradition bill protestors. This would follow the lead of the United Kingdom. The IPCC, which has been tasked with preparing a report, has been criticised by the United Nations Human Rights Committee and the UN Committee Against Torture, who have recommended an independent mechanism be established investigate inappropriate use of force by police. At the same time, the Australian government should ensure it is not exporting crowd control equipment which could be used by Hong Kong police, again following the United Kingdom’s lead.
Thirdly, the Australian government should develop laws similar to the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act which operate in the United States, United Kingdom and Canada. This would allow targeted sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes against individuals with records of human rights abuse. Such legislation would be a powerful deterrent for the Hong Kong and the Chinese government with respect to any future escalations.
There are also three initial measures that the Australian Parliament should take.
Firstly, with Parliament having only recently returned, it would be timely for a bipartisan motion on Hong Kong. Such a motion should note concerns with the overall deterioration of the human rights and rule of law environment in Hong Kong. Further, it should clearly state that such concerns are not “interference” under international law. This is important in expressing support for a rules-based order and countering a pervasive narrative from China and Hong Kong.
Secondly, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights should hold an inquiry into the human rights situation in Hong Kong. Section 7(c) of the Human Rights Parliamentary Scrutiny Act 2011 provides the Committee with an inquiry function following referral from the Attorney-General. An inquiry would be useful to investigate developments and identify how Australia should engage moving forward, especially given the lack of other review mechanisms available at a parliamentary level.
Thirdly, Parliament should carefully scrutinise the Australia-Hong Kong Free Trade Agreement, which was recently signed on 26 March 2019 and is yet to be ratified. Members should ensure that it has sufficient human rights protections before it progresses, which it currently lacks. As the United Kingdom looks to post-Brexit agreements, including with Hong Kong, it is noteworthy that the United Kingdom Parliament Joint Committee on Human Rights recently concluded an inquiry into Human Rights in International Agreements. The inquiry attracted several submissions from Hong Kong organisations, with recommendations including the use of standard human rights protections in all agreements.
The Hong Kong government may be hoping to ride out the crisis, such that protestor apathy kicks in. However, even if that happens the fundamental structural problems that plague Hong Kong will not be addressed. Meanwhile, pressure from China on Hong Kong’s political and legal environment will continue. As the Australian Parliament and Government consider what steps to take, the above measures will help support fundamental human rights principles in Hong Kong, while reflecting Australia’s national interests and foreign policy values.
Simon Henderson is an international human rights lawyer. For the past two years he was senior policy advisor at Justice Centre Hong Kong, where he was based in Hong Kong.
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