My amazing friends in the England Good Neighbour Church – the UK offshoot of the church by the same name in Hong Kong’s North District, founded by the courageous Pastor Roy Chan Hoi-hing – have launched a campaign to urge the United Nations and others in the international community to take “more specific and tough actions in response to the massacre of civilians in Myanmar and the political persecution in Hong Kong”. And they are absolutely right to do so.
In the past two months since the coup in Myanmar, almost 600 people have been killed by the military and just under 3000 are in prison. And in recent weeks the military have launched airstrikes against some of the country’s ethnic minorities, particularly the Karen along the border with Thailand, causing over 20,000 civilians to flee into hiding in the jungle. Schools, churches and homes have been bombed. The UN Special Envoy for Myanmar Christine Schraner Burgner has warned of an imminent “bloodbath”, while others warn that the country is teetering on the brink of civil war.
In Hong Kong over the past year, and especially in recent months, promised freedoms and autonomy guaranteed under an international treaty registered at the UN have been dismantled, and dozens of prominent mainstream pro-democracy politicians and activists arrested.
Last week, the day before Good Friday, we saw seven of Hong Kong’s most respected democrats found guilty of unauthorized assembly for participating in peaceful protests. These include 82 year-old Martin Lee, known as the “father” of the democracy movement, who helped draft Hong Kong’s mini constitution, the Basic Law, 73 year-old fellow barrister Margaret Ng and the 72 year-old proprietor of this publication, Jimmy Lai. They await their sentencing next week.
And this week activist Andy Li appeared in public for the first time in months, in court at the start of his trial under the draconian National Security Law. Escorted by a fleet of over a dozen police motorbikes as if he were a mass murderer instead of the gentle, skinny, peaceful campaigner that he is, Mr Li was represented in court by a mysterious lawyer not appointed by his family. He was denied bail even before he could consider applying for it, and remanded in custody. He has already spent over six months in prison in Shenzhen after his failed escape from Hong Kong by boat last August, along with 11 other young Hong Kongers, but now faces many more years behind bars. The only comfort is that he is back in Hong Kong, his whereabouts are now, finally, known – and he has now been seen in person, albeit in court.
A month ago the UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, former US Congressman Tom Andrews, told the UN Human Rights Council that the military’s crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in the country amounted to crimes against humanity. At almost the same time British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab declared Beijing’s dismantling of Hong Kong’s electoral system to be the third breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, a UN-registered treaty valid at least until 2047. Yet on both counts, the UN is sleeping.
Arguably, the UN is no better than the sum of its parts, and responsibility lies with member states. There is certainly a lot of truth to that, and to be fair, in the case of Myanmar, the United Kingdom has initiated several UN Security Council discussions since the coup. Further action has been blocked by China. And when it comes to justice for Joint Declaration violations, no one is in any doubt that China would refuse to recognize – let alone comply with – any case brought to an international court. That shows what is wrong with our current international system and why it needs reform. But it does not excuse inaction, for there are other avenues that could be pursued.
The failure of leadership by the current UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is especially stark. In response to the crisis in Myanmar he has wrung his hands and issued platitudinal statements of concern and condemnation. Don’t get me wrong – words are better than silence, and in regard to the dismantling of Hong Kong’s freedoms, grave human rights violations throughout China and the genocide of the Uyghurs, Mr Guterres lips have been sealed. Instead, last month he sent Xi Jinping a letter congratulating China in its “complete victory” in its fight against poverty.
In a recent interview with VICE News, Mr Guterres expressed a defeatist outlook about his role, saying that “the problem of the UN is that our multilateralism has no teeth”. He added: “Our power in the UN is the power of persuasion, is the power of speaking up, is the power of denouncing what needs to be denounced. But we cannot order countries to do what they must do.” All of that is totally true. The problem is that Mr Guterres does not even seem to be trying to use the tools that are at his disposal.
A UN Secretary-General does – as Mr Guterres says – have the power to persuade, the power to speak up, the power to denounce. Yet these are powers that should not be underestimated and, in the right, capable hands, can have some effect. Kofi Annan had his faults, but he played a pivotal role in saving East Timor from total destruction in 1999, deploying his moral authority as UN Secretary-General to bang world leaders’ heads together and mobilize an intervention that saved lives and saw a tiny, fragile nation reborn. Ban Ki-moon, who had his faults too, led the international response to Myanmar’s Cyclone Nargis in 2008 and, while rather late in the day, contributed to the effort to persuade the then military dictatorship to allow humanitarian assistance into the country. Sure, a UN Secretary-General is limited – but they do not need to be mute, they do not need to be kowtowing. And when crimes against humanity in one country are occurring and a UN-registered international treaty in another region is trampled on, the Secretary-General should do more than issue mere statements for the former and become a Trappist monk on the latter. He should travel to the region, bring leaders together and use his good offices as a catalyst for a solution to both crises.
If Mr Guterres wants a second term as Secretary-General from next year, he needs to ask himself – and tell us – why he wants the job. Is it because he wants to make a difference in the world, or because he enjoys the title and the trappings of the office? If the former, he needs to lead. If not, those of us who believe in multilateralism but also in the values of freedom, democracy, the rule of law, human rights, the international rules-based order and peace will look to others to defend them. Mr Guterres’ leadership is fast torpedoing the UN in the same direction as the League of Nations – which is not what I desire. But could an alliance of democracies, proposed by President Biden and Prime Minister Boris Johnson, at least be an alternative rather than a replacement, a jolt to the complacent system if not a revolution in the global governance system?
From the macro, back to the micro – in the big scheme of things. Reviewing this week, one other news story stood out for me that is worthy of comment – the intervention of pro-Beijing legislator Paul Tse, who claimed that urging Hong Kongers to cast blank votes whenever Hong Kong’s next sham elections (better known as ‘selections’) come might be a national security law violation. For myself, I have three responses. First, I don’t take it upon myself to tell Hong Kongers what they should do at the ballot box. That’s up to them, and it would be totally presumptuous of me to advise them. Second, blank votes are one option but rather a boring one. Third, I’d say voters would have two other options. Either boycott the sham elections altogether. Or, more fun, go to vote, but spoil your ballot paper. Draw funny pictures and write rude comments about Carrie Lam, Teresa Cheng, Regina Ip, Xi Jinping and all their ridiculousness, all over your ballot papers – in your thousands. But you didn’t hear it from me.
Last weekend we celebrated Easter. And we’re still in the octave of Easter. This coming Sunday, in two days’ time, it is Divine Mercy Sunday. And I pray – for Myanmar and Hong Kong – Easter resurrection and divine mercy, soon. I promise to work for it too.
(Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist and writer. He is the co-founder and Chief Executive of Hong Kong Watch, Senior Analyst for East Asia at the international human rights organisation CSW, co-founder and Deputy Chair of the UK Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, a member of the advisory group of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) and a founding trustee of Hong Kong ARC. He is the author of six books, including three on Myanmar.)
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