With Hong Kong under siege, the UK must reaffirm its commitment to democracy, human rights and the rule of law

By Libby Smith, LCID Exec Member

Beijing’s latest crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong marks the end of the territory as we know it. We are still yet to understand the full implications of China’s new security law. But what is clear, is the ramifications will ripple much farther than East Asia. This is also a seismic moment for Sino-British relations.

After months of protests, the new security law gives large-scale powers to Beijing far beyond the legal system. The law makes it easier for China to punish protesters and will reduce the city’s autonomy. Not just an encroachment of international human rights law, this is a flagrant violation of the 1984 Joint Declaration.

A former Crown colony and British Dependent Territory, we have a duty to protect the people of Hong Kong. Now is not the time to shy away from our values. The Labour Party, specifically our Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy MP, has pushed hard on this, constantly calling on the Government to act before it’s too late and I’m pleased that they have finally listened with the Foreign Secretary rightly condemning this latest aggression by the Chinese Government, as well as offering citizenship to Hong Kong residents last week. As Nandy has rightly asserted “The events in Hong Kong…represent a challenge to our values. Now is not the moment for the UK to turn away from our international obligations.”

National Governments are understandably focused on the domestic issues of the time, most pressingly right now the Covid-19 pandemic. Nonetheless, we cannot be cavalier about promoting the values we hold dear. The new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office must be formed with this at its heart, if Britain is to continue to be a force for good in the world. Key to this, development and diplomacy must work hand in hand. The new department must harness effectively the comparative advantages of both the old Department for International Development (DFID) and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). DFID’s development expertise cannot be crowded out.

Britain must remain an outward-facing, tolerant, compassionate country. One that respects democracy, the rule of law and human rights and champions the international rules-based system. Our work overseas has been a direct reflection of those values. In countries such as Ethiopia, Bangladesh and Sierra Leone, UK aid is helping give citizens the power to report the truth and hold governments accountable. By strengthening the ability of independent media in developing countries to produce free, independent public interest journalism, UK aid is helping to provide opportunities for constructive public debate, both online and offline.

It’s clear that when we champion these values across the globe, we advance democracy whilst also flying the flag for Britain worldwide. Take Nigeria where the UK has been one of the most systematic supporters of free and fair elections. In 2015, we helped to deliver what was hailed as the most credible presidential elections in Nigeria’s history, with US Secretary of State John Kerry referring to the election as “a decisive moment for democracy across Africa”. The same can be said for Kenya, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where UK aid is helping to improve the government’s accountability to its citizens by delivering peaceful, transparent, inclusive elections, and supporting organisations that can influence and deliver reforms.

True, the vast majority of countries across the world are not yet fully functioning democracies. In fact, democracies are mostly imperfect and rare – an assessment which includes our own. But democracy is worth fighting for, because every hard won right and freedom is giving citizens the chance of a fairer and more prosperous future. With this in mind, a strong response to the recent developments in Hong Kong is not only our moral duty, but paramount to maintaining a clear message of Britain’s values.

Right now is a time for reflection, as we look back on our own nation’s history. Some of which is, of course, steeped in uncomfortable truths, as recently highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movements in the UK. We must also grapple with what we want Britain’s future role to be and what we stand for, as we anticipate the UK’s international standing beyond the European Union.

Let this be a moment when we stand up for the values of internationalism, democracy, rule of law and human rights. It won’t necessarily be the easiest path. To do this we must take a tough stance in response to the Chinese Communist Party and stand up for the people of Hong Kong. One thing is for sure, we cannot afford to turn a blind eye.

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