How we should ensure UK arms exports do not help crush pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong

Nicholas Gilby, author of Deception in High Places, discusses the latest protests which have broken out in Hong Kong and the role that the UK arms trade is playing in supporting its repression.

On Sunday, serious unrest broke out in Hong Kong and large-scale protests still continue.  A student-driven movement drew tens of thousands on to the streets of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, calling for a truly free election for the Chief Executive of the territory in 2017.  The police used considerable amounts of tear gas on the peaceful protesters, in an attempt to disperse them.  Sadly, it appears that some of the tear gas used in the attempt to crush the pro-democracy protests may have been licensed for export by the UK Government, the former colonial power.

When, after 99 years of British rule, Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997 it was agreed that “the previous capitalist system and way of life shall remain unchanged for 50 years”.  In practice this means the people of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) enjoy much greater civil liberties than those in Communist-run China, including, for example, unhindered internet access and freedom of speech.  Further, the rule of law of prevails, and corruption is not nearly as widespread as in mainland China.

The Chinese Government had previously promised that universal suffrage would be used in the election of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive in 2017 and in the election of all legislators in 2020.  But, in August, the Chinese Government decided that all candidates in the election for Chief Executive had to be approved by Beijing.  In other words, Hong Kong’s citizens will not have a free choice to elect who they want.

However, what is little known, and so far remains unexamined by the British Parliament’s Committees on Arms Export Controls, is the steady flow of licences issued by the UK Government for the export of tear gas to Hong Kong. The full list is here. One licence was issued as recently as January 2014, another in November 2013, and four others two or more years ago.  We do not know yet which company exported the tear gas or who the end user was.  However, there have been reportson Twitter that UK-made tear gas may have been used yesterday.

It is difficult to see the current unrest in Hong Kong ending happily.  The Chinese Government in Beijing are highly unlikely to back down, as doing so would mean Hong Kong remaining a democratic beacon within China, which might encourage a pro-democracy movement on the mainland.  Further, the Chinese Government showed by the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 their ruthlessness in dealing with pro-democracy protests.  Already the pressure from Beijing on the Hong Kong authorities to suppress the Occupy Central movement must be intense. The people of Hong Kong are demanding a truly democratic future.  We in Britain should not be a party to the repression of such hopes by licensing to the Hong Kong Government equipment, such as tear gas, which could be used in internal repression. And let’s be clear the tear gassing on Sunday was repression.  The Hong Kong police used tear gas a whopping 87 times.  Anyone watching internet video of the protests, as I did (for example on Apple Daily), could see that on at least several occasions tear gas was used against protesters doing nothing more than milling about.  Amnesty International has rightly said there was “no legitimate reason” for its use.

Further, heavily armed police were frequently seen, a particularly intimidating sight given that all the protesters were well aware of what happened at Tiananmen Square 25 years ago.

The UK Government’s own export licensing criteria are based on risk assessment.  Plainly there are high risks, now and in the future, that equipment that could be used for internal repression might be used in Hong Kong to suppress protesters who merely demand the democratic rights that we in the UK take for granted.  Parliament’s Committees on Arms Export Controls has recently been highly critical of the UK Government’s tendency to approve exports which might be used for internal repression to countries where the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has serious human rights concerns (one of these being China).  The UK Government should accordingly announce now a ban on the export of all such equipment from the UK to Hong Kong for the foreseeable future.

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