The conflict has surged in recent weeks. Police have teargassed workers in the city’s financial district. Universities have become battlegrounds. One 22-year-old man has died falling from a car park near a police operation, a 70-year-old man was killed on his lunch break when hit on the head by a brick, and a teenage woman has reported being gang-raped by police officers while in custody.
The police have now shot three people with live rounds and routinely attacked peaceful protests by saturating them with tear gas. The police have also besieged several university campuses using an arsenal of heavy weapons.
There is also violence against the police and against those voicing pro-Beijing views, some of whom have been seriously injured in street attacks. But there is no equivalence between the two sides. It’s the state-sponsored, systematic violence by the police using overwhelming force that has brought Hong Kong to the brink.
If Hong Kong looks like it could be teetering on the edge of a violent abyss, that’s because it really might be. Mainland China’s relationship with Hong Kong of “One Country Two Systems,” established after the British colonial withdrawal in 1997, is under enormous strain, and Beijing also looks incapable of making any constructive move.
It is hard to see a way out of the now daily clashes, though some things could help. President Trump should immediately sign the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act – which was recently passed with near-unanimous consent by the US Congress.
The Act includes ways for the US government to impose sanctions on officials linked to human rights violations, although Washington already has many of these powers and does not have to wait until the legislation is passed before it takes action.
But the US and other countries need to push the Hong Kong authorities, who show little sign of being capable of properly handling the deepening political crisis. They have conceded to one of the protestors’ five demands – to rescind legislation allowing suspects to be extradited for the city to mainland China.
But the other four remain – amnesty for arrested protesters; an end to describing the protests as riots; universal suffrage, and an independent inquiry into the use of force by police.
A real inquiry into police behaviour is desperately needed. Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s insistence that the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC) should undertake the job is a huge mistake.
Even the international advisors appointed by the government to the IPCC say it lacks sufficient powers to conduct a proper investigation into what’s happened in recent months.
Lam should immediately announce a full, public, independent commission of inquiry that carries public confidence. There is no one formula for successful commissions of inquiry, but there are plenty of international examples to learn from. Some included commissioners from local civil society, others from overseas.
What’s vital is that any commission has public trust. The US Kerner Commission of 1968 – which included civil rights representatives – investigated police behaviour during months of widespread disturbances across American cities the year before, and made impressive suggestions for police reform.
The 2011 Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry – made up of international experts – outlined what happened in the major unrest in the small middle eastern country in the early months of that year, and is generally accepted as a fair account of what had taken place. It made pointed recommendations about how the police needed to change (reforms the government there has sadly failed to implement).
And in 1972 the UK government showed exactly how not to conduct an inquiry when its security forces opening fire on peaceful protesters in Derry on Bloody Sunday.
The Widgery Tribunal of that year, headed by a member of the British establishment, failed spectacularly. It exonerated the security forces and blamed the protesters, further destroying public trust in the British authorities, and encouraged more people to turn to violence.
The Widgery report was so bad it had to be redone decades later. Its replacement – the Saville Inquiry – made up of international judges, produced a fair report in 2010 that held public confidence. The report led the British government to finally apologise for its security forces shooting dozens of unarmed protestors that afternoon in January 1972, killing 14 of them.
Hong Kong cannot afford to wait 38 years for the truth to come out. It needs a full public investigation now, detailing exactly what has happened this year, and recommending ways those responsible for human rights violations should be held to account.
Increasing violence and more deaths look inevitable in the coming weeks. Hong Kong’s government should immediately announce an independent inquiry, appoint commissioners the public can trust, give it the investigatory powers it needs, require it to report soon, and implement its recommendations.
There is no magic “Off Button” to push to end the violence, and appointing a real inquiry won’t end the unrest, but it would be a start.
Brian Dooley is a senior advisor at Human Rights First, an international human rights organisation. Wilson Leung is a barrister in Hong Kong and a member of the Progressive Lawyers Group.
Article originally appeared in Hong Kong Free Press on 22 November 2019