You may remember An Inconvenient Truth, the documentary about the environment by former U.S. vice president Al Gore. I was fortunate to be in an audience in Oslo watching Al Gore’s presentation on the environmental crisis, which is one of the most compelling presentations I have listened to. His appeal was to see and accept the truth, no matter how inconvenient that is, and then take action to remedy the crisis.
The inconvenient truth about Hong Kong is the rapid deterioration of its rule of law and legal institutions. Unfortunately, the reality is that the Hong Kong administration conveniently and consciously ignores this reality. By doing so, they are demonstrating lack of sensitivity to the aspirations of the people of Hong Kong, especially the young. They have been increasingly apathetic towards the aspirations of the younger generation, dismissing them as a “small group of people” or an “insignificant minority.”
Youths have often sparked social and political changes. For example, in South Korea, they sparked the democratic revolution in 1980 in Kwangju and then again in June 1987 all over the country to end a military dictatorship and restore the rule of law. Students and youths played an important part in restoring democracy and the rule of law in Indonesia in 1998. They were in the forefront of the recent anti-corruption movement in Malaysia. And youths and students in Thailand are currently trying to move their country towards a path to establishing a more democratic, accountable and transparent government. These youths and students are fighting for universally accepted principles of good governance and the rule of law. Why? It is because it is their future at stake. Decisions made now will not affect those decision makers but the youths. That is why they have begun to take huge risks and some in Hong Kong have ended up in prison. When politicians dismiss them as an “insignificant minority”, they are in fact belittling those universal principles that form a solid foundation of an accountable and transparent system of governance.
I talked with an engineer in Hong Kong the other day who had joined those large-scale protests last year when millions took to streets peacefully in Hong Kong. He told me that over a period of months he was seeing basic freedoms shrinking and rapid increase in arbitrary and rather violent police actions. The arbitrary and violent approaches by the police to civilians shocked the Hong Kong people and the international community. Those arbitrary operations in fact further alienated the police force from the population. Hong Kong Government’s approach to this ‘inconvenient truth’ was to conveniently ignore such reality of continuous misconduct of law enforcement as if they behaved normally.
Any success in administration is dependent on good governance principles. Hong Kong was once a role model for good governance in Asia, especially due to the transparent, accountable, and efficient government , and effective implementation of rule of law by legal institutions. If Hong Kong is still perceived by the administration as a world city, it should follow international standards. Those standards are set out clearly in a number of international legal instruments, especially the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Hong Kong is obliged to follow standards set out in ICCPR. Article 21 of the ICCPR guarantees ‘the right of peaceful assembly’. UN Human Rights Committee, a body of 18 experts, monitors governments for compliance with the ICCPR. From time to time, the Committee issues General Comments intending to interpret provisions of ICCPR and suggest ways to implement them domestically. On September 17, UN Human Rights Committee issued a General Comment on the right of peaceful assembly. With regard to law enforcement by officials during demonstrations, the Committee stated, “States have an obligation to investigate effectively, impartially and in a timely manner any allegation or reasonable suspicion of unlawful use of force or other violations by law enforcement officials, including sexual or gender-based violence, in the context of assemblies.” While there is ample evidence to suggest that there is unlawful or excessive use of force by the Hong Kong Police Force, the approach of the Hong Kong government is to ignore them. By ignoring misconduct of law enforcement, it indirectly encourages the law enforcement officials to perpetuate its arbitrary and rather violent actions. It is through strong, democratic, accountable, and transparent government institutions that comply with rule of law that the population at large build their trust in the governing administration. When the administration becomes apathetic and conveniently and consciously ignores visible signs of deterioration of rule of law and law enforcement institutions like the police force, they basically demonstrate they simply do not care about the people. Apathy is a dangerous characteristic of a failing administration.
One may ask what the way forward is to reinstate Hong Kong. While a lot of damage has already been done by the current administration, I am still hopeful that still there is a chance to save Hong Kong, yet not by force, inflicting fear, using more brutal and ruthless tactics. The more you do that, the more backward Hong Kong goes. The more you do that, the more damage you do to the institutions and best practices in Hong Kong once China itself aspired to. What needs to be done is make every effort to build trust in the people of Hong Kong. That must happen by genuinely listening to them and recognizing the inconvenient truth that Hong Kong is sliding down a dangerous slope of no rule of law and authoritarianism. The Hong Kong Government needs to take it seriously when its people sing “Do you hear the people sing”. In Nigeria people took to the streets against police violence, especially by its Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). What the Nigerian Government did was something remarkable! They not only agreed to disband this police squad, but also release all individuals who were arrested in protests. This is a government in a developing country which has listened to its people. They have accepted the truth about its police force, no matter how inconvenient that may have been. And then, more importantly, they took decisive action to resolve the situation. There is much for Hong Kong authorities to learn from this Nigerian experience. The Hong Kong authorities need to take decisive actions to reform its police force. It also needs to assure that there is independence of justice institutions. If the administration continues to conveniently ignore the inconvenient truth, it will be too late to save Hong Kong.
(Yan Kei, Advocate for criminal justice reforms)
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