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Democracy is in retreat – but heroic activists are emerging

Hong Kong, the new front line in the struggle for human rights (Getty)

Jesus Christ was a refugee who grew up to become a dissident. Of course He is much more than that – He is God Incarnate, Emmanuel – but as we approach the Nativity and see images of a baby lying in a manger, let us not forget the rest of the story.

And as we contemplate this scene, let us remember the refugees and dissidents of the world today.

Over the course of this year, freedom, human rights and human dignity have continued to be threatened or denied in many parts of the world. Across Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America, freedom of expression, assembly, association and religion are facing increasing challenges.

But even in Europe and North America freedom of conscience is often constrained. According to Freedom House, democracy itself is in retreat, with political rights and civil liberties in steady decline over the past 13 years.

In Burma the tragedy continues, with no sign of any safe return of Rohingyas from Bangladesh or peace for the Kachin, Shan and others in the north. Several international legal initiatives have commenced to hold the military accountable for genocide and crimes against humanity. But within the country racial and religious nationalism have sparked such fervour that many people now support the military and hate the West. A far cry from the decades of struggle for democracy during the junta’s rule.

One of the few signs of light in the country is Cardinal Charles Bo, who has continued to speak out courageously. In August he released a document called “Reflections from the Periphery: God’s love for the people and nations of Asia”, which was distributed to every Catholic parish in the country. In it, he set out his vision, based on Holy Scripture and Church teaching, for the country, focusing on rights and duties, peace, the role of the military, religious freedom and other challenges such as education, human trafficking and slavery, and drugs. He ended by offering the Church as “a place of mercy for all, to be a centre of reconciliation, to defend the rights of everyone everywhere of every religion and ethnicity, no exceptions, and to tear down barriers and move fences and counter hatred with love”.

In Indonesia, the world’s third-largest democracy and the largest Muslim-majority nation, there are mixed signals. On the positive side, the nation held the world’s biggest election in April without significant disruption. For 190 million voters across a vast and diverse archipelago to vote for the president, the national parliament, provincial legislatures and local councils all in one day is quite a feat. The incumbent, Joko Widodo, was re-elected and threats from his defeated rival, former General Prabowo Subianto (son-in-law of the late dictator Suharto) to challenge the result or unleash militants in protest evaporated.

Nevertheless religious intolerance was a dominant theme in the election campaign, with Prabowo backed by a coalition of hardline Islamist parties stoking up identity politics. I met one of their representatives on election day in Jakarta, who told me that their goal was complete Islamic law for the country, with everyone expected to obey. President Widodo has chosen conservative cleric Ma’ruf Amin, former head of the Indonesian Ulema Council, as his vice-president, and Prabowo as defence minister, presumably as a means of containing extremists. This could be dangerous if it gives hardliners a platform in government. Tackling threats to Indonesia’s tradition of religious pluralism ought to be President Widodo’s top priority in his second term.

In Nigeria, two Boko Haram factions continue to wage a brutal war against Christians and moderate Muslims in the north east, while a Fulani militia targets Christian communities in central states, killing thousands, forcing entire communities to flee and then occupying several areas.

In Syria, the crisis continues. Just last month an Armenian Catholic priest, Fr Hosseb Bedoyan, was assassinated near Deir Ezzour.

In Eritrea, the 92-year old Patriarch Antonios of the Eritrean Orthodox Church was “excommunicated” in July and remains under house arrest.

North Korea remains a nation with a terrible human rights record, despite attempts by South Korea and the United States to engage supreme leader Kim Jong-un. The United Nations accused the country of crimes against humanity five years ago, but the regime continues perpetrate its crimes with impunity.

Also the world’s most serious violator of human rights – certainly the one that most directly threatens those outside its borders – is China. Over the past seven years since Xi Jinping has been in power, the Communist Party has intensified its repression on all fronts. Activists have been jailed or disappeared, dissidents and bloggers silenced, civil society space shrunk and religion subjected to ever tighter controls.

Christians speak of the worst persecution since the Cultural Revolution. They say churches are being forced to display of portraits of Xi Jinping or propaganda banners and mount facial recognition cameras on the altar to record worshippers. Children are prohibited from going to places of worship, and a new government push to “Sinicise” religion may lead to new translations of the Bible interpreted in accordance with Communist Party teachings. A year on from the secret Vatican-China deal, there has been no improvement and only worsening repression.

But it is at the peripheries where China’s human rights crisis is especially dramatic. In Tibet, the brutality continues. In Xinjiang, as human rights researchers have been reporting for several years and recently leaked government documents confirm, a campaign against the Muslim Uighur people has led to the incarceration of at least a million people in prison camps.

The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has described Xinjiang as “a massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy, a sort of a no rights zone… [where] members of the Uighur minority, along with others who are identified as Muslim, are being treated as enemies of the state based solely on their ethno-religious identity.”

China’s state media has publicly stated that the goal in regard to the Uighurs is to “break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections and break their origins.” As the Washington Post put it: “It’s hard to read that as anything other than a declaration of genocidal intent.”

Xinjiang has been a laboratory for the regime’s use of surveillance technologies. Not only are cameras everywhere, recording every move, but artificial intelligence, mobile phone applications and facial recognition systems are turning Xinjiang – and in due course we fear the rest of China – into an Orwellian state.

But amid the darkness, it is possible to find some light.

In June this year, an independent inquiry into forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience in China, chaired by Sir Geoffrey Nice, QC, who had led the prosecution of Slobodan Milosevic, reached a judgment that should bestir the world. The seven-member panel of lawyers, a senior surgeon, a prominent businessman and an academic, none of whom had any previous engagement with the issue and no particular agenda to pursue, reached the conclusion, after six months of hearings and examining evidence, that it was beyond reasonable doubt that the Chinese state has been forcibly extracting human organs from prisoners of conscience for the transplant industry.

Furthermore, they concluded that this amounts to a crime against humanity and that anyone engaging with the Chinese state should do so in the knowledge that they are “interacting with a criminal state”. Governments can no longer hide behind the argument that these allegations are false. What they choose to do about it is now a matter of political will and moral fibre.

Perhaps the biggest sign of light in all this is the people of Hong Kong. For six months they have continued to protest in defence of their freedoms. In the beginning, they did so peacefully, and in extraordinary numbers.

On one occasion two million, a quarter of the population, took to the streets. They sang hymns and held prayer vigils. Police responded with disproportionate violence and eventually, despairing of a government that refused to listen to their cries, a small minority fought back.

Yet last month, the people of Hong Kong proved again that they prefer peaceful protest when given the chance, and expressed their will overwhelmingly at the ballot box in district council elections. In the largest democratic exercise in its history, despite months of intimidation and violence, turnout was 71 per cent – a figure unheard of in most democracies for local council votes. Of the 18 district councils, which were all controlled by Beijing, the pro-democracy camp won control of 17. Out of 452 council seats, the pro-democracy camp won 392, leaving the pro-Beijing camp with just 60. The message is overwhelmingly clear. It was reiterated on December 8 when almost a million people took to the streets in peaceful protest.

But Hong Kong’s struggle is far from over, and it has come at a high price. Beijing continues to reject the protesters’ demands for universal suffrage at all levels of government, and ignores calls for an independent inquiry into police brutality. If the protesters’ grievances are not addressed, and if there is no meaningful dialogue, violence is likely to intensify. And if this happens, what is already described as a humanitarian crisis will become a humanitarian disaster.

That term – “humanitarian crisis” – is normally associated with Syria, North Korea, Burma, not Hong Kong. But last month in a powerful article in The Lancet, Dr Darren Mann, a senior British surgeon living in Hong Kong, wrote that the arrest of and assault on doctors, nurses and first-aiders by the police justifies the term. The actions of the police, Dr Mann wrote, “have fallen far below accepted international norms for the handling of volunteer emergency medical providers … The arrest of these personnel is almost unheard of in civilised countries and is incompatible with the compact of humanitarianism.”

Journalists and human rights monitors have also been targeted, with one Indonesian reporter, Veby Mega Indah, permanently blinded in one eye after she was shot by the police. More than 5,800 people have been arrested, and reports are emerging of torture and rape in detention in addition to the savage beatings, tear gas, pepper-spray, rubber bullets and on a few occasions live ammunition, and an alarming number of mysterious deaths.

Hong Kong is the new front line in the struggle for freedom, and it is in all our interests to stand with its people as they struggle to protect their way of life. Britain in particular has both a moral and a legal responsibility, given its history and its obligations as a signatory to an international treaty, the Sino-British Joint Declaration. Britain must be more vocal in leading an international response to the crisis, and identify practical ways to help Hong Kong. In particular, Britain should explore ways to offer sanctuary to those who may need to flee, targeted sanctions against those responsible for or complicit with torture, and a ban on public contracts with any institution involved in human rights violations.

The Church too should speak out. It would be a tragedy if the deal between the Vatican and Beijing prevents the Holy See from supporting the protesters. The Jesuit Conference of Asia-Pacific got it right when it issued a letter this month to Jesuits in Hong Kong. It said: “We affirm our solidarity with you in prayer for healing and for a just and peaceful resolution to the ongoing crisis … We are painfully saddened at the injuries, loss of life, increasing destruction, and the tearing of the social fabric of your attractive city … This crisis for Hong Kong is also a time of challenge for Asia Pacific for our world.”

If Hong Kong loses its freedoms, what hope is there for North Korea, Syria, Burma or the world’s other tragedies? This Christmas, let us be inspired by the child in the manger and the man on the Cross to pray and work for a world of freedom, peace and justice for everyone, everywhere.

Benedict Rogers is East Asia Team Leader at the human rights organisation CSW, and co-founder and chairman of Hong Kong Watch. He is the author of six books, including From Burma to Rome: A Journey into the Catholic Church (Gracewing)