By Darren Mann
One of the many consequences of the current pandemic has been a recognition of the essential place of healthcare workers in society. For many weeks, we have been applauding them in a weekly ritual. Contrast these sentiments with what is happening to nurses, doctors and allied-health professionals in Hong Kong — a city whose medical system is modelled on that of our own NHS.
Throughout the past year, the work of volunteer medical personnel has been criminalised, and the wider health sector weaponised by the government against the people. And the passage of the new national security law now renders the provision of first-aid to persons injured during street protests an illegal act of supporting terrorism.
A civil rights movement has been raging in Hong Kong for the past year: idealistic young people — students and workers — seeking representative and participatory governance, pitted against one of the world’s best equipped law enforcement organisations. Once self-lauded as ‘Asia’s Finest’, the Hong Kong Police Force has morphed from a community law enforcement body into a paramilitary organ of state suppression.
Much of the regrettable violence seen at large-scale demonstrations has been the result of collective anger at a repressive policing posture that has sought to frustrate the legitimate public right to peaceful protest. And that youthful “Be Water” movement is itself now being water-boarded by the world’s dominant autocracy in an ideological dispute as uncivil as it is unbalanced.
Can such a contest even be governed by rules ? Yes, because even the bloodiest of violent conflicts are answerable to the moral code of warfare. The Geneva Conventions of 1949 that embody the laws of war were manifestly extended to within-state armed violence by Additional Protocol II in 1977. Their spirit customarily holds in the protection of citizens against abuses by state law enforcement bodies and security forces.
These principles — also known as International Humanitarian Law (IHL) — exist to ensure the primacy of humanity (relief of suffering and the protection of human life, health and dignity) over operational intent in violent disputes. Chief amongst the precepts is “Distinction” which provides for the safeguarding of the injured, whose inalienable right to life imposes on all parties an obligation to protect emergency medical workers and treatment facilities.
Respect for, and prohibition of abuse of, the symbols of humanitarian protection (Red Cross, Crescent, Crystal and equivalents) are obligatory. But be in no doubt, these protections are as paper thin as the treaty documents they are inscribed upon.
In response to credible reports of wide-scale abuses against humanitarian medical workers at the Hong Kong protests, the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Hong Kong has conducted an inquiry, obtaining first hand evidence and eye-witness testimony from volunteers at the front line, journalists and police.
The findings are shocking. The Hong Kong Police Force systematically harassed, physically assaulted, unlawfully arrested and detained humanitarian medical workers treating the injured at the sites of demonstrations. Equally concerning were patterns of abuses in ambulances and even in hospitals in the pursuit of law enforcement objectives.
Compounded by the obstruction of medical care to the injured and denial of the healthcare safe space as a consequence of political expression, these appalling infringements amount to violations not only of international humanitarian customs, but also of human rights law. Needless to say, such conduct is utterly inconsistent with the Sino-British Joint Declaration.
How quickly ‘made in Hong Kong’ has become ‘maimed in Hong Kong’.
Why does this matter, and what can and should be done ? Erosion of international treaties and customs should always be vigorously challenged, as tolerance of undermining them inevitably leads to acceptance at a diminished level. The APPG has rightly recommended that a formal investigation should be conducted by the United Nations, supported as necessary by the International Bar Association. Transparency and accountability are essential here. If the result is censures, sanctions, or even prosecution at the International Criminal Court, then so be it.
Now that civic trust has collapsed, and the moral equivalent of “war crimes” are being committed in one of the world’s most iconic cities, what more does the international community need to see before it takes action ?
Let’s consider the consequences of inaction: the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre has just recently passed. As memories fade, it should be recalled with poignancy that amongst the estimated 10,000 dead students were the bodies of the many courageous nurses and doctors attending the wounded at first-aid stations. True to the finest traditions of humanitarianism, they were the last to leave the battlefield. They fell at their posts. Does anybody now believe that Beijing’s attitudes to volunteer healthcare workers has softened since?
As Hong Kong faces its “Last Post”, neither its citizens nor carers can clap — their hands are cuffed. Humanitarianism is one of the ties that binds us as people worldwide: it is time for the international community to reassert that volunteers working under its symbols of protection are not to be fettered.
Dr Darren Mann is a British surgeon, humanitarian law advocate, and a permanent resident of Hong Kong for the past 25 years.