UK must stand up for Hong Kong humanitarian workers

As repression continues against protestors in Hong Kong, Green peer Natalie Bennett calls for the UK Government to take action against the perpetrators of abuse against humanitarian and medical workers treating injured protestors as the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hong Kong releases a new report on abuses.

An image of protestors in Hong Kong
An image of protestors in Hong Kong

Image: Studio Incendo / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Natalie Bennett

The Geneva Conventions state that humanitarian workers “shall be respected and protected”. It also says “in no circumstances shall any person be punished for having carried out medical activities”.

That’s referring to conditions of war, but should surely be applied in any situation, including civil conflict.

Morally, to look after people who are devoting themselves to the care of others, is obviously right. But it is also a practical rule. 

None of us know when we might need help, need a first aid or medical professional, and we might have to ask them to put themselves into danger to do that – and if they’re being attacked, or specifically targeted for their role, they’re much less likely to be able to do that. 

In Hong Kong last year, such targeting occurred.

I can say that with certainty, having been part of the preparation of a report published this morning by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Hong Kong, which sifted through nearly 1,000 submissions from people on the ground and held three oral evidence sessions.

Moments from that oral testimony, hearing from brave, some very young, people will stick with me for a long time.

That wasn’t just from the incidents they reported, of facing threatening, abusive police, of being deliberately shot at with rubber bullets, tear gas and pepper spray, of being arrested and held, sometimes very uncomfortably, for long periods, of a hospital labour ward being invaded by male police and doctors refused the right to treat injured protesters appropriately.

It wasn’t just – disturbing as they were – the accounts of the vicious abuse they had received from police, including extreme gender-based abuse.

It was what they were facing when they spoke to us by videolink, what they were risking, and what they face now, since subsequent to the events we were examining Beijing imposed a draconian national security law on Hong Kong and used the Covid-19 pandemic as an excuse to call off planned elections this year. (That after pro-democracy candidates won an overwhelming victory in district council elections last year.)

As a doctor said, with a nervous glance at the door, it could be burst open at any time and he might simply disappear, fate unknown. 

All of this is, of course, something that those standing up for human rights, for democracy, for the rule of law, face sadly in far too many nations on this planet.

But the situation of Hong Kong is special – and a special UK responsibility. For in 1997 Hong Kong, as a British colony, was “handed over” to China. 

It wasn’t just the land, it was the people of Hong Kong “handed over”, with a solemn, legal promise from China to respect existing rights and laws, and to work towards an expansion of the democracy that the colonial authorities had long denied: “one country, two systems” was the slogan.

Covering, supposedly protecting, the people was an internationally recognised treaty between Beijing and London. 

The UK has acted, as the repression in Hong Kong has tightened, issuing strong statements, announcing that British National (Overseas) passport holders and their dependents would be allowed to settle in the UK.

But, as the APPG report this morning recommends, more is needed.

An APPG is a group of parliamentarians who have no special powers or resources. They have no right to summon witnesses or official staff, no judicial standing. 

So the first recommendation of the report is that the UK work with the UN or an organisation such as the International Bar Association to conduct an inquiry into the treatment of international humanitarian workers.

That’s of particular importance because defending their protections is something the international community needs to uphold as a matter of principle. If it is ignored in one place, it becomes easier for it to be ignored in others.

The report also recommends Magnitsky sanctions be directed against those responsible for abuses – as the UK recently imposed on individuals responsible for human rights abuses in a number of countries.

And it recommends that the UK make efforts to provide refuge to these medical and humanitarian workers, whatever their passport.

The focus of this report is narrow, reflecting the resources of the APPG. But of course what is happening to the medical workers is a broader reflection of what is happening and threatened to all Hongkongers. 

Recently, we’ve seen people arrested for holding up simple blank sheets of paper, and young people for rights-asserting social media posts.

Standing by without taking action, without working with the international community to show that abusing human rights has real active consequences, for individuals and government, is not an option.

Over to you, Dominic Raab.

Natalie Bennett is a Green peer and is the co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hong Kong, which this morning put out a 100-page report, The Shrinking Safe Space for Humanitarian Aid Workers in Hong Kong.