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 "non-violent" protesters.

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 very difficult.

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 government everywhere.

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 unlawful assembly.

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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