For Hong Kong, the clock is ticking. Not in months, weeks or even days, but hours. Much has been said in recent weeks by the international community about Beijing’s impending national security law that will decimate Hong Kong’s liberties and autonomy. It is time now to act.

Some action has already been promised. The United States Congress has legislated to impose targeted sanctions. Britain has promised to extend protection to Hong Kongers who hold British National Overseas passports, offering a pathway to citizenship. These are very welcome steps. But so much more is needed, and urgently.

Riot police subdue a protester. Photo: Studio Incendo.

Democracies around the world need to wake up to the fact that the dismantling of “one country, two systems” — the principle on which Hong Kong was handed over to China exactly 23 years ago today — is an assault not only on Hong Kong’s freedoms and way of life but also on our own. If we allow the Chinese Communist Party to get away with so flagrantly breaching the Sino-British Joint Declaration, a treaty lodged at the United Nations, less than halfway through its lifespan, then we allow them to undermine the international rules-based order with impunity.

Beijing’s top legislative body today unanimously passed the sweeping national security law prohibiting acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces to endanger national security. The law, approved by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, is expected to carry a maximum penalty of life in jail. It is expected to come into force on July 1.

National Security Law banner on bus. Photo: Rhoda Kwan/HKFP

When the national security law is imposed on Hong Kong, the territory’s people will be plunged into the biggest crisis in their modern history. Many will be in grave danger, many will face the terrible choice of whether to risk prison and torture or silence their consciences, and many may choose to flee.

If it is the case that the international community has failed to save Hong Kong — because it failed to heed the warning signs and act sooner — it still must not take this as a fait accompli. For even if we cannot stop the destruction of Hong Kong’s freedoms, we can make sure that those responsible pay the highest possible price, their conduct after the law is enacted is closely monitored and those who flee receive protection.

Photo: Benjamin Yuen/United Social Press.

That means a three-pronged approach: punitive, diplomatic and humanitarian.

In punitive terms, we need targeted sanctions — immediately. The United States has led the way, and others must follow. At the very least, countries with Magnitsky-style sanctions legislation should impose them. Sanctions against key state-owned enterprises should be considered. And we should all say “no way” to Huawei and other Chinese technology companies complicit with the regime’s Orwellian surveillance systems and repression.

In diplomatic terms, we need coordination. As seven former British foreign secretaries have called for, Britain should lead the way in establishing an international contact group of like-minded countries — not only Western allies such as the United States, Canada, Australia and European friends but also democracies in the Asia-Pacific such as Japan, perhaps Indonesia and others — to coordinate a range of measures. Not everyone will agree on everything, but those who choose, for example, to impose sanctions should do so in a synchronized way, while others might lend support to other elements.

File photo: United Nations via Wallpaperflare

UN sends enormous signal

One arena where all like-minded countries should coordinate is the United Nations.

Last Friday something truly unprecedented happened. At least 50 United Nations “special procedures” on human rights — special rapporteurs, independent experts, working groups — signed a statement calling for “decisive measures” to protect human rights across China, including Hong Kong. Specifically, this calls for the establishment of a UN mechanism — a special envoy or special rapporteur. There are 56 special procedures in total, focused on thematic and geographical areas, so for 50 to join together sends an enormous signal.

Yet their statement was preceded by calls by former UN high commissioner for human rights Zeid Raad al-Hussein and eight former UN special rapporteurs for the establishment of an envoy or rapporteur on Hong Kong. These include former Indonesian attorney-general Marzuki Darusman, who served as UN rapporteur on North Korea and then chaired the UN fact-finding mission on Myanmar, Ben Emmerson QC, who served as rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism, the former rapporteur on torture Juan Menendez, Heiner Bielefeldt, former rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief and Thai academic Vitit Muntarbhorn, who has held several key UN mandates, including most recently the first UN independent expert on violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

A protester tearing the Basic Law of Hong Kong at the Legislative Council president’s desk covered by a pre-Handover Hong Kong flag. Photo: Kris Cheng/HKFP.

They expressed “grave concern about the immediate threats to human rights” from the imminent imposition of the national security law on Hong Kong, which they call a “flagrant breach” of the Sino-British Joint Declaration. They say it is “imperative” for the UN to act now to establish a mechanism for Hong Kong.

Yanghee Lee, former chair of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and former UN special rapporteur on Myanmar, who also signed that statement, wrote a powerful op-ed earlier this month with the same call.

This proposal has also been backed by the last governor of Hong Kong, Lord Patten; the director of the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute, Baroness Helena Kennedy QC; the former chief prosecutor in the trial of Slobodan Milosevic, Sir Geoffrey Nice QC; the chairs of the foreign affairs committees in the British, Australian, Canadian and New Zealand parliaments; former British foreign secretary Lord Owen and the European Parliament. There is momentum behind this plan and the UN and its member states must act immediately.

Titanic lifeboat. Photo: Wikicommons.

Then there’s the third strand — the humanitarian response. There is an urgent need for an international lifeboat scheme for like-minded countries to come together to agree a rescue package for those who need to flee Hong Kong.

A lifeboat scheme should never be a first response, only a last resort. The aim in the global effort for Hong Kong is to create such pressure on the tyrants in Beijing that they back off and Hong Kongers can resume their lives as normal. But it would be naïve to fail to prepare. The tragedy is that it is highly likely that Hong Kongers — the number as yet unknown — may need sanctuary, and we should be ready.

No one country can take them all, obviously. That’s why a coordinated plan is needed. It has been done before, in past crises, and we must prepare to do it again.

Photo: Heidi Lee.

And there is, rightly, a huge amount of goodwill to Hong Kongers. The promises by the British government, combined with welcome assurances from the United States, Australia, Canada and others, are indicative of that. The international community can see the flagrant injustice facing Hong Kong, the blatant disregard for international commitments by the Chinese regime, the impending threat to Hong Kong, which has become the front line in the fight for freedom against authoritarianism, and the extraordinary courage, creativity, determination, dynamism, energy, entrepreneurialism and initiative of Hong Kongers themselves.

The world knows that people from Hong Kong — a tiny city which has become one of the world’s most important financial and trading hubs — are people who create wealth and ideas. The world can see that if some Hong Kongers are forced to escape their city, they are unlikely to be long-term burdens on others but will inject their entrepreneurialism wherever they end up.

Scrubbed protester slogan “Glory to Hong Kong” on police barriers surrounding Legco. Photo: Rhoda Kwan/HKFP

For all these reasons, we must get prepared — now. We must recognize that sadly there is no one single magic wand, but rather a toolbox which we must now deploy. We must assemble from that toolbox every tool available to us, across the punitive, diplomatic and rescue categories, and do so with as much coordination across the world as possible.

That work should have started a long time ago. Even if it is not possible to save Hong Kong from a period of intense repression, every single freedom-loving government in the world has a responsibility today to work together to ensure that the period of repression in Hong Kong is as short as possible, the consequences for the tyrants are as tough as possible, and we work towards the day when Hong Kong is once again free — and indeed when all the peoples of China can enjoy the freedoms Hong Kong has had until recently, which they were promised, and which we enjoy and for so long have taken for granted. Now: action stations.

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Benedict Rogers

Benedict Rogers is a writer and human rights activist specialising in Asia. He is the author of six books, including Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads. He is also a former parliamentary candidate and co-founder and Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission in the UK. Ben lived in Hong Kong from 1997-2002 and travels regularly to the region. He is the co-founder and Chief Executive of Hong Kong Watch.