Global sanctions on Hong Kong’s political leaders will likely deepen and expand following new rules established by Beijing to let the executive disqualify elected legislators almost at will. Not only has the US indicated sweeping new sanctions, the UK and possibly Canada are likely to follow. The EU and Australia, currently considering Magnitsky-style sanctions schemes, may well follow suit.

Hong Kong’s leaders have brought it on themselves. By refusing to listen to demands from the people, and importantly, refusing to reform the supervision of the police – seemingly responsible for rampant and growing human rights violations – it has left victims in Hong Kong with no judicial nor administrative way to seek redress.

(From left to right) Kenneth Leung, Kwok Ka-ki, Dennis Kwok and Alvin Yeung are unseated from the legislature on November 11, 2020. Photo: Alvin Yeung, via Facebook.

The National Security Law, and the latest rules from Beijing permitting the disqualification of any lawmaker it chooses, have removed the last illusion of political freedom in Hong Kong. Police can now operate with even greater impunity.

It is in situations such as these that Magnitsky sanctions – now used by the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada, with more countries moving to adopt similar legislation – can play an important role in bringing some justice to victims. The number of foreigners, often British, serving on the police force but also in other roles within Hong Kong’s government, and the fact that Hong Kong’s financial system is so closely intertwined with the west, makes it ripe for effective sanctioning – because the perpetrators, for example, police commanders, have something to lose. Unlike in China’s byzantine system, for rights violators in Hong Kong there are fewer places to hide.

However, no foreign ministry, not even the US State Department, has the resources to track down perpetrators – for example, police officers systematically using violence against peaceful protesters or police commanders at detention centres that mistreat those detained for political purposes –  and collect the data and evidence needed to move forward with sanctions.

Only with help from Hong Kong’s civil society can these sanctions be effectively imposed. The guilty parties need to be tracked down and identified.

Photo: GovHK.

Despite the collapse of Hong Kong’s rule of law and openness, it still offers a wide array of avenues to track down such perpetrators and their holdings and assets. Safeguard Defenders have released a guide that deals specifically with how to track them down, focused on Hong Kong and China. It has been developed with the help of corporate due diligence officers and private investigators, and it’s easier than many think.

Now the guide, already published in English, has been released in Chinese. This complements another, very comprehensive manual, available in both English and Chinese, with a step-by-step guide on having someone sanctioned in the US, UK, or Canada.

For the first time, there is information on how regular citizens, local groups, and NGOs can help counter ever-growing human rights violations, have guilty parties punished, and take an important step in forcing others to reconsider becoming perpetrators. It also offers a path to justice for victims who can no longer get it in Hong Kong.

In an exceedingly dire situation, and one that will likely get worse before it gets better, Magnitsky sanctions offer a way to strike back and a way for Hong Kong’s civil society to play a key role.


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Peter Dahlin

Peter Dahlin was co-founder of now-defunct Chinese NGO 'China Action' (2009-2016) and is the director of Safeguard Defenders, which assist lawyers, independent media, and civil society groups across east- and southeast Asia in protecting human rights and promoting the rule of law.