Background to the Issue
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims a common standard of achievement for all people and all countries. This achievement should be reached to the degree that every organ in society and every individual keeps the Declaration in mind and strives to encourage the respect of the rights and freedoms of the people (“Universal Declaration of Human Rights”). In the preamble, the following is stated: “whereas it is essential […] to have resource, as a last resort, to participate in rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law” (“Universal Declaration of Human Rights”).
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Thus, the right to protest is among the fundamental human rights protected by the Universal Declaration. Article 19 applies to the case of protests because they represent an expression of the freedom and opinions: “this right includes freedom to hold opinion without interference and seek, receive, and impart information and ideas” (United Nations). The exchange of information and its dissemination is integral in protests and social gatherings.
Article 20 also applies to the case of protests because its first part states that “everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association” (United Nations). Thus, exploring the violation of human rights as related to the freedom of citizens to assemble and protest if they see a need for it. This paper will discuss the violation of human rights as applied to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and applied to the context of the Hong Kong protests occurring over 2019.
Recent events associated with the 2019 Hong Kong protests, otherwise known as the Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill movement pertain to a series of demonstrations in Hong Kong that were triggered by the introduction of the Fugitive Offenders amendment bill (Griffiths). Introduced in April 2019, the extradition bill made it possible for criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China under specific circumstances. Those opposing the introduction of the bill explained that such a legal development posed a significant risk of exposing Hong Kong to unfair trials and violent treatment.
It was also argued that the legislation would grant China extended influence over Hong Kong that could be used to target journalists and activists. As a response to the introduction of the bill, citizens took to the streets to protest and show their disagreement with the government’s decision. However, the protest soon escalated, that led to clashes between police and activists, which became more frequent and violent (Lum). Despite the claims of the government that the bill would be suspended indefinitely, protesters feared that it would be eventually revived.
Violation of Human Rights
The opposition between the protesters and the government represents a democratic crisis in Hong Kong because of the deterioration in the attitudes of officials to the needs and views of the population. The increase in police brutality and the acts of violence targeted to oppose the protesters is a violation of democratic freedoms and values that guide the positive development of Hong Kong as a political entity. Since March 31, 2019, when the first protests started and included approximately two million people, the frustration of the public grew with each day (Boyajian and Cook). Attacks on predominantly peaceful public by police and mobs associated with organized crime groups (triads) resulted in people being injured and hospitalized.
Instead of managing the violations of human rights and opening the dialogue with the public, the Hong Kong government responded unnecessarily aggressively and unsatisfactorily, which led to the worsening of protesters’ frustration. To respond to the ineffectiveness of the government in managing the critical situation, some activists decided to engage in more assertive forms of civil protest (Boyajian and Cook).
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Despite becoming quite radical in their actions, such as the occupation of the international airport of Hong Kong of the blocking the most important traffic thoroughfares, the protesters wanted to show that their initial rights express opinions freedom and assemble to show opposition were violated. In addition, the scale of public frustration was reflected in wide-ranging work stoppages among civil workers, air-traffic controllers, and even workers at Disneyland. These employees wanted to show to the Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam that his efforts to reduce the impact of the public frustration were ineffective and were the direct reasons for workers’ protests (Boyajian and Cook).
While Hong Kong officials were trying to deal with the protests, the Chinese government was aiming to attain control over the narrative of the civil dissatisfaction by censoring media coverage and engaging in propaganda. Most importantly, the control of the narrative was occurring not only in mainland China and Hong Kong but also worldwide (Nip).
Another alarming development was associated with the Chinese government, with its garrison of “6,000 troops stationed in Hong Kong” and thousands across borders, provided a threatening response to the opposition movement, suggesting that the protests could be suppressed with the help of the military (Chan). This was deeply concerning for the citizens of Hong Kong who were protesting on the streets because the situation could deteriorate rapidly, leading to further violence.
As applied to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, violence against Hong Protesters represents the key violation of the Declaration. Despite the fact that the majority of protesters in Hong Kong remained peaceful, the response from the police was immeasurably unfair and in violation of the Declaration. The methods that the law enforcement used included attacks on journalists reporting on the events, using tear gas and rubber bullets against people protesting on the streets within dangerously close ranges, beating people with batons and shields, as well as attacking peaceful individuals inside train stations who were going from the protests, as reported in The New York Times (Ramzy).
The rights to peaceful protest and the expression of the public’s views regarding the introduction of the extradition bill were also violated by mafia-triad groups that targeted the participants of the protests. As mentioned by Ramzy, on July 21 2019, a gang attacked peaceful protestors who were entering a train station and trains as well as attacked innocent bystanders who also included a pregnant woman. In terms of the effectiveness of the Hong Police managing the situation on the streets, multiple videos were made capturing the law enforcement ignoring the requests for assistance from the public and leaving the scene. The injuries made to the peaceful protesters were largely associated with the lack of desire of the police to be on the side of the public, thus obeying the aggressive rhetoric of the government.
The issue of violating the rights of peaceful protesters has a long history in the Communist Party of China that used to hire gang members and criminals to attack the opponents of the regime in Taiwan and Hong Long (Cole). The recent attacks on Hong Kong protesters, combined with the inability of law enforcement to respond to emergencies, point to the complicity of Hong Kong’s government with the Communist ideologies associated with the suppression of opposition (Bradster). The violent and unfair treatment of protesters was also in opposition to the “one country, two systems” framework, which should be explored further (Boyajian and Cook).
The framework of “one country, two systems” explains a special administrative status of Hong Kong in the People’s Republic of China (Boyajian and Cook). Hong Kong is expected to retain a significant level of autonomy, exclusing defense and foreign affairs. Furthermore, the framework also implies the “rights and freedoms, including those of the person, of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of travel, of movement, of correspondence, of strike, of choice of occupation, of academic research, and of religious belief” (Boyajian and Cook). The principles embedded in Hong Kong’s ideology of “one country, two systems” are similar to those communicated in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
However, the reliance of the government on the opinions of Chinese officials despite the “two systems” policy points to deteriorating democracy in the administrative region. The interference of the Chinese government into the protests shows a low level of autonomy in Hong Kong, violating the key ideas communicated in the “one country, two systems” framework.
Therefore, the protestors who are still active in Hong Kong to this day are vocal about the deteriorating democratic conditions in the region as well as violations of their rights to protest and assemble. What is essential to note that the protesters are not asking to get new rights that they do not currently have under both international and domestic law. Rather, they are aiming at ensuring that the rights that they have under the “one country, two systems” model are valued by their government.
The Value of Hong Kong Protests
Despite the fact that peaceful and innocent individuals are suffering from the aggression of the Hong Kong government, the case has special importance to the exploration of global security, human rights, as well as the economy. Since the preservation of peace within countries and administrative regions is imperative for their financial well-being, the protests in Hong Kong have economic implications.
The instability in the region causes a disruption in the trade partnership between Hong Kong and the United States, especially in the goods-and-services area. Security implications are also important to consider because the region is visited by millions of tourists from around the world as well as nationals from foreign countries living there. The violence by Hong Kong police and the Chinese People’s Liberation Arby, as well as members of mob factions, is a cause of concern for the global community.
The events in Hong Kong are valuable to the discussion of human rights violations because they show that citizens are not always protected by the policies that were initially established to ensure security and peace. For example, the decision of the government to ban the ability of protesters to wear face masks as a means of identifying protection as well as a preventative measure from police attacks (“Hong Kong: Face Mask Ban”). Such a ban is a significant restriction on the rights to peaceful assembly. As mentioned by the senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch Maya Wang, “the broad face mask ban seems aimed to discourage protests, not to serve a necessary law enforcement function” (“Hong Kong: Face Mask Ban”).
Therefore, the government is intentional about making decisions that would prevent protestors from gathering and peacefully, for which they have the right. The restriction of key freedoms in Hong Kong encourages a valuable conversation about the enforcement of global laws as applied to specific cases and regions. There is a need to facilitate proactive actions to adhere to the laws of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The methods implemented to force populations to conform to the restrictive rules of governments should be controlled and reported to the global community to spread awareness of police brutality and the inability of the government to manage the protests.
The situation in Hong Kong is important to consider in the discussion of human rights violations. The peaceful protest that occurred as a response to unsatisfactory legislation enforced by the government escalated due to the inability of officials to open a productive dialogue with the public. The civil rights were violated when the government made the decision to oppose the protest with the help of violence and deception, such as the involvement of criminal factions that attacked innocent protesters. The United Nations should be more proactive in encouraging Hong Kong’s government to deescalate the situation and facilitate the dialogue between the public and the officials, eventually reaching consensus.
Boyajian, Annie, and Sarah Cook. “Democratic Crisis in Hong Kong Recommendations for Policymakers.” Freedom House. 2019.
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Bradster, Keith. “Why the Protests in Hong Kong May Have no End in Sight.” The New York Times. 2019.
Cole, Michael. “Nice Democracy You’ve Got There. Be a Shame If Something Happened to It.” Foreign Policy. 2018.
Griffiths, James, et al. “More Than 1 Million Protest in Hong Kong, Organizers Say, Over Chinese Extradition Law.” CNN. 2019.
“Hong Kong: Face Mask Ban Violates Assembly Rights.” Human Rights Watch. 2019.
Nip, Joyce. “Extremist Mobs? How China’s Propaganda Machine Tried to Control the Message in the Hong Kong Protests.” The Conversation. 2019.
Ramzy, Austin. “Mob Attack at Hong Kong Train Station Heightens Seething Tensions in City.” The New York Times. 2019.