Hongkong: Rules of Law
There is a disturbing trend in countries
which are supposed to be leaders in abiding by the rule of law to put
political expediency ahead of law enforcement. That is not a please
for hanging and flogging and knee-jerk "be tough on crime" rhetoric
but simply putting the interests of the law-abiding, and of society
at large, first..
Last week in Melbourne for a meeting
of the World Economic Forum I was witness to - and slight victim of
- the failure of the local police force to maintain even a semblance
of control of the streets around the meeting's venue, the Crown Casino
complex, or offer protection to those shoved and bullied by self-styled
Thousands of police stood by as demonstrators,
numbering at most 1,500, successfully made the complex a prison for
those inside and no-go area for those needing entry. All this after
the authorities had been well warned of the aim of the organizers to
close down the meeting. Police incompetence may have been partly to
blame but the message from the Victorian state premier's office to the
police seems to have been: avoid trouble and lurid scenes for the TV
cameras just before the Olympics. The result: for most of the three
days of the meeting, the thugs got their way, making entry and exit
Fortunately this feeble-minded policy
has been a political disaster for the premier as Melbournians have been
suitably appalled by the affair. The WEF is a less important outfit
than it sounds, even with Bill Gates in attendance, but freedom of assembly
is supposed to apply to all.
The right to demonstrate is an important
one. Non-violent civil disobedience has an honourable history, with
those who indulge in inviting the legal consequences. In this case almost
no one was arrested despite three days of civil disobedience accompanied
by actual or threatened mob violence. Stately, rainy Melbourne was the
last place one might expect such events - except that touchy-feely politics
and a desire to be seen to be "nice" to everyone is an enemy of good
Direct action has a longer tradition
in France, whether as a last gasp of 1789 revolutionary .fervour or
a reaction to centralised executive power little tamed (as in Hongkong
by legislature or judiciary.) So it was perhaps not surprising that
the government of Lionel Jospin quickly caved in to familiar farmer
and trucker blockades.
But the spread to Britain f illegal
direct action by truck and taxi owner/drivers aimed at bringing the
country to a halt by crippling fuel delivery,was new. Britain has a
long history of strikes, sometimes requiring workers to be protected
against strike picket violence. But this direct action, combining road
blockages with intimidation of drivers was a step forward (or, rather,
backward) towards in-your-face action reminiscent of the football hooligan
fringe..The British crisis
is now over for now but the prospect of future direct action by all
kinds of disgruntled interest groups is clear.
Meanwhile Europeans have also been
having a negative impact on the rule of law in Asia - the Philippines,
to be precise. The diplomatic pressure applied to Manila not to use
force against the Abu Sayyaf gang of hostage takers led inexorably to
their release last week at a cost of a few million dollars paid the
Libyans and others. Equally inexorably, that lucrative deal has been
followed by more kidnaps, with extortion thinly disguised as the act
of a liberation movement.
Ironically among the first to urge
"caution" on Manila so as to protect the lives of the innocent captives
was the very same Javier Solana, then NATO secretary general, who led
the campaign to use force to punish the Serbs for their kidnap of Kosovo!
It may be some excuse for the EU that few Filipinos have faith in their
military's ability to carry out a surgical strike against the rebels
without harming the hostages.
It is also true that the Philippine
government has been prepared to see ransoms paid in other cases. It
may not have done so directly but its negotiator Roberto Aventajado
must have been bargaining with something. The freed Malaysian captives
from Sipadan surely did not get out for free either.
Kidnap for ransom is a thriving business
in southeast Asia though in countries like Malaysia it usually goes
unreported if not unrecorded. However, it is lack of readiness to resist
ransom demands which has made the trade so successful. So too has the
willingness of some journalists to pay for interviews with the kidnappers.
Again the Europeans can be found acting in Asia in ways which would
not be acceptable at home.
And the people who so often accuse
the Philippines government of being weak and incompetent in the face
of assorted rebels has effectively been encouraging the rebels to raise
the ante. Europeans are worth more than Filipinos and doubtless the
American now captured is viewed as even more of a prize.
Hongkong cannot claim to be a good
example of anti-kidnap resolve. Remember how a son of Li Ka-shing was
kidnapped. three years ago? A huge sum was paid for his release but
neither the crime nor an unusually large note issuance to make the pay-off
were reported to the authorities.
Private, direct-action justice is understandable,
but it is also the way of the lynch mob. It should be condemned in the
harshest words. Best of all, payment of ransoms, as of bribes, should
be made a serious criminal offence. Nor should the Hongkong government
equate laws against violent picketing with its own prosecutions for
The requirement for organisers of
demonstrations to have a permit is an administrative convenience.It
should never, ever be used as an excuse to curb freedom of speech or
assembly on the grounds that they are technically not allowed. Demonstrations
always cause problems for someone. But that does not make them unlawful.
Although inconvenient and noisy they are a normal and necessary means
of public expression in a free society. Blockades and intimidation are
the opposite. Direct action cuts out the institutions which are our
protection against arbitrary action, mob rule and demagogues. ends
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