Foreign Office

Hong Kong since handover

This summer will mark 20 years since the handover of Hong Kong from the United Kingdom to China. The handover marked the end of 156 years of British rule. In that time, Hong Kong was transformed from a small town into one of the most prosperous cities in the world. Under British rule, Hong Kongers also enjoyed significantly greater human rights protections than their counterparts in mainland China.

Earlier this week, as part of its Conservatism and human rights project, Bright Blue met a delegation from Demosisto, a political party in Hong Kong, which has one MP in the Legislative Council of Hong Kong and includes Joshua Wong, a high-profile activist who has been detained in Thailand at the request of the Chinese Government. They talked at length about their views and experiences of human rights abuses in Hong Kong, which includes disqualifying pro-democracy MPs from the Legislative Council of Hong Kong, and restrictions on press, academic and religious freedom.

British officials were deeply concerned that the Chinese government, after the handover in 1997, would seek to erode many of the protections that Hong Kongers enjoyed. In an attempt to mitigate this risk, the UK and China signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration. The declaration established the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ principle, which required the Chinese government not to practise the socialism which existed on the mainland. Instead, Hong Kong would continue its capitalist system and way of life for 50 years after 1997. To ensure this was the case, the Chinese Government created the Hong Kong Basic Law - a series of constitutional protections.

However, in the past three years there have been two significant accusations that the Chinese Government is failing to abide by the conditions held in the Sino-British Joint Declaration: rendition, where Hong Kong citizens have been taken from the city and other locations without the permission of the Hong Kong government; and a Chinese Government white paper which seems to suggest reneging on the One Country, Two Systems principle.


Between October and December 2015, five staff members of a bookstore in Hong Kong disappeared. The bookstore in question sells a number of political books that banned in mainland China. The store’s right to sell these books in Hong Kong is protected under Basic Law Article 27. The store is one of 100 independent bookstores in Hong Kong which cater predominantly for people interested in the political issues of Chinese mainland politics.

At the time of their disappearances, one of the staff members, Gui Minhai - a Swedish national - was believed to be writing a book about the personal history of Xi Jinping, the current General Secretary of the Communist Party of China. The book was named Xi and His Six Women. One of the bookstore workers disappeared while in Hong Kong. Minhai was taken from his home in Thailand, and the other three workers disappeared while in mainland China.

There was initially no information on the location of the workers. Chinese Government involvement was suspected since disappearances are commonplace in mainland China. Following significant international focus on the missing bookstore workers, two of the missing men appeared through letters and in a confessional video broadcast on national television. During the broadcast, they insisted that their return to mainland China was voluntary. These confessions were widely considered to be carefully stage-managed.

Chinese officials later confirmed that the five workers had been arrested in relation illegal book trading.. Article 22 states of Hong Kong Basic Law states that no department of the central, provincial, or municipal governments in mainland China can interfere in the affairs which the Hong Kong government is responsible for administering.  So this case was considered a significant violation of Hong Kong basic law. Hong Kong's Chief Executive, CY Leung, stated in a press conference - prior to Chinese confirmation that they had detained the staff - that if mainland Chinese law officials were operating in Hong Kong, it would be "unacceptable" and a breach of the Basic Law.

Four of the Hong Kong bookstore workers have been released. However, Gui Minhai remains in custody. The Chinese government has faced no sanctions for its violation of Hong Kong Basic Law.

One Country, Two Systems?

Under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, Beijing is committed to permitting Hong Kong “a high degree of autonomy except in foreign and defence affairs.” This has commonly been referred to as the One Country, Two Systems policy. However, in 2014, the Chinese Government published a white paper which appears to significantly compromise this principle.

The white paper asserts the Chinese Government’s "comprehensive jurisdiction" over Hong Kong. The paper argues that Hong Kong legislators must “love their country” (China), and warns against possible threats to Chinese rule in the city.

The publication of the white paper caused what the New York Times described as a “firestorm of criticism from many people in Hong Kong”. Critics argued that the Chinese Government was reneging on its pledges to abide by the One Country, Two Systems policy. In response, there was a significant demonstration in Hong Kong to protest against the publication of the white paper.

While the media in mainland China was supportive of the white paper, Hong Kong newspapers struck a different tone. The South China Morning Post pointed out that the white paper was published only two weeks before pro-democracy Occupy Central activists were due to hold an unofficial referendum on who should be the Chief Executive in the upcoming elections. The organiser of Occupy Central argued that the Chinese government was using the paper to "try to scare Hong Kongers into silence". The Ming Pao argued that the One Country, Two Systems concept has become an "empty shell" and Hong Kong is likely to turn into an "ordinary Chinese city".

Despite these criticisms, the Chinese government has not withdrawn any of the assertions held in the white paper.


Two cases over the last three years suggest that China is violating the Sino-British Joint Declaration and infringing on the Basic Law of Hong Kong. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s response to these accusations has been muted. Since the handover, the British Foreign Secretary has reported to Parliament at 6-monthly intervals on the implementation of the Sino-British Joint Declaration in Hong Kong. The latest report, in February this year, argued that Hong Kong’s rule of law remains “robust”. However, the report also did admit that there are some challenges to the One Country, Two Systems policy.

In truth, the British Government only has limited power with which to enforce the Joint Declaration. Prior to handover, it was able to exact compromises from the Chinese government by slowing the handover process. Now few levers remain. And, as described to us by the delegation from Hong Kong earlier this week, the human rights situation in the city seems to be deteriorating.

James Dobson is a researcher at Bright Blue

Blessed are the peacekeepers

The light blue hats of the United Nations Peacekeepers are known around most of the world as markers of trust and respectability. Deployed into dangerous conflict zones with the aim of helping “countries torn by conflict create the conditions for lasting peace”, UN peacekeepers - now numbering more than 100,000 strong - are sent to places where individual governments can’t, or won’t, intervene.

The men and women that comprise the peacekeepers are drawn from the United Nations’ member states. This fact has a number of benefits: the first, and most obvious, is that the multi-ethnic and multi-cultural backgrounds of peacekeepers working together leads to the type of international cooperation that the United Nations is there to foster in the first place. Another is that it can help the United Nations avoid accusations of nationality-based bias. It is not difficult to see the problems that might arise if a peacekeeping taskforce composed entirely of people of one nation were placed into a country that had a historically tense relationship with it.

As a result, the top country of origin for the more than 100,000 peacekeepers currently serving as of July this year is Ethiopia, having donated 8,333 police, soldiers and otherwise. 6,872 are from Bangladesh. 7,713 are Indian. In comparison, only 336 are from the UK and 434 from Germany.

An endemic problem

Unfortunately, however, peacekeepers aren’t all gleaming bastions of morality. In addition to a number of thefts committed by peacekeepers each year during missions, there is a far more serious problem lurking beneath the surface of the peacekeeper programme. In fact, it is so well recognised that it has acquired its own acronym - the unthreatening sounding ‘SEA’. This acronym stands for Sexual Exploitation and Abuse - where peacekeepers working with the United Nations have used the authority vested in them to abuse and victimise women and children in the countries they are supposed to be helping.

A three-page bulletin signed by the then Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2003 defined, for the United Nations, what they understood SEA to mean. Sexual Exploitation was defined as “any actual or attempted abuse of a position of vulnerability, differential power, or trust, for sexual purposes, including, but not limited to, profiting monetarily, socially or politically from the sexual exploitation of another”.

The extent of the violence is not to be underestimated. Accordin to annual reports of the total number of complaints made against peacekeepers, 99 complaints were made against police, military and civilian personnel serving under the banner of the United Nations last year. These complaints accused peacekeepers of everything from engaging in transactional sex to exploitative relationships, and even to sexual activity with someone underage.

Given that reporting rates - even in developed economies with relatively progressive attitudes towards sexual assault - can be anywhere from  10 - 15% to even lower, it is not impossible that many unreported attacks by peacekeepers take place each year.

Bringing perpetrators to account

According to the 2003 bulletin, the procedure following an accusation of SEA involves a “proper investigation”. Thereafter, if “there is evidence to support allegations of sexual exploitation or sexual abuse, these cases may... be referred to national authorities for criminal prosecution”. This is perhaps the only sensible way to hold soldiers to account for their actions. Placing peacekeepers under the law of the countries in which they are placed is a recipe for disaster, given the unstable nature of many of the countries where a humanitarian intervention is necessary.

Even worse would be for the United Nations to attempt to decide on their own whether one of their peacekeepers had committed SEA. The first problem is that the United Nations does not have the power to detain foreign soldiers - so any peacekeeper found ‘guilty’ could not be incarcerated in a prison run by the United Nations. Second, given the differing international standards for what constitutes sexual assault, abuse or exploitation, whose law should be taken as inspiration? And even if one were chosen, why should peacekeepers work for the United Nations when they would have to follow different - and potentially far stricter - laws than the ones governing them in their home country?

But the solution - of having peacekeepers governed by the law of their own countries of origin - presents its own problems. These problems make it far harder to bring perpetrators of SEA to justice.

Justice delayed is justice denied

SEA by peacekeepers has been known about for decades. A review by Prince Zeid of Jordan, written as far back as 2005, describes “a perception that peacekeeping personnel who commit acts of sexual exploitation and abuse that constitute crimes under generally accepted standards are not normally subjected to criminal prosecution”. It concludes: “Such perceptions are not without foundation.”

The problems, as outlined in the report, are many.  When SEA is reported and investigated, the evidence gathered is frequently “not sufficient under their national law for use in subsequent… proceedings or has not been gathered in a manner required”. Even if evidence is gathered correctly and presented to the peacekeeper’s nation of origin, there are still no guarantees. Prince Zeid writes that these investigations “do not obligate a troop-contributing country to prosecute. A decision whether or not to prosecute is an act of sovereignty.”

The problem of bringing perpetrators to account is therefore particularly difficult. Even when crimes are properly investigated and evidence brought before the perpetrator’s country of origin, if that country decides not to bring charges, then that’s it.

This process itself also takes time. In testimony before the House of Lords Select Committee on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Paula Donovan, Co-Director of AIDS-Free World, described the bureaucratic process, saying: “for reasons that we cannot understand… the United Nations itself puts itself between that victim and justice by taking as long as it needs...This causes incredible delays, and the delays are of course death to a case of sexual abuse and certainly rape. The delays also amount to the obstruction of justice for the victims.”

A British perspective

From a British foreign policy perspective, it would seem that there is little that can be done. Instituting an international law against sexual assault is likely beyond the powers of even our diplomatic service. Convincing other countries to attempt to convict members of their own armed forces is also unlikely. However, alleviating the problem of sexual violence by peacekeepers doesn’t only have to take place after the fact. Preventing the exploitation from happening in the first place would have a far greater impact.

The best thing would be to attempt to properly educate and train peacekeepers - before and while they are on missions - to reduce the likelihood of SEA. In that sense, Britain may be uniquely well placed to have a positive impact.

The House of Lords report from earlier this year by the Sexual Violence in Conflict Select Committee called for the British government to support “mandatory pre-deployment gender training for all peacekeepers” that was “intensive, ongoing and underscored by positive practice”.

What’s more, the UK already has sufficient numbers of experts that have a track record in educating on gender issues. The 2015 report on the government’s National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security recorded that the British government had sent a team of gender experts to Iraq to train Kurdish police forces. We also trained 190 community health workers in Syria, educated more than 200,000 people about FGM in Somalia, held workshops in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, trained more than 300 officials in Burma and supported more training in Afghanistan. Training more experts, or bringing the ones that we already have to the United Nations, is both a politically and logistically feasible goal.

It wouldn’t solve the problem, and it wouldn’t help with bringing criminals to justice. That problem, in the end, may simply be insoluble. But to use our expertise to train peacekeepers and, in the process, prevent up to thousands of victims from being exploited or attacked at all - that would be a good start.

Zachary Spiro is a research assistant at Bright Blue

Bahrain: A troubled relationship

On Monday morning, a leading Bahraini human rights activist, Nabeel Rajab, was arrested. On Tuesday, the Bahraini courts suspended Bahrain’s main political opposition party. The arrest and suspension immediately provoked the condemnation of a number of international human rights organisations.

The UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) regularly publishes a list of human rights priority countries. Human rights priority countries are “human rights trouble spots” where the FCO deems the UK has the ability to influence change. In 2014, Bahrain was not included in the last of priority countries. After significant criticism, including from the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, the FCO did include Bahrain on its 2015 list.

Despite its inclusion on the FCO’s human rights priority list, Bahrain remains a key UK trading ally. Only this week, for example, reports emerged that Bahrain is paying the bulk of the costs of the construction of a new Royal Navy base in its country.

This blog reviews the evidence behind human rights violations in Bahrain in three key areas: freedom of expression, torture and the rule of law.

Freedom of expression

The Bahraini Government claims that the country permits freedom of expression. For example, Bahraini ministers have claimed that Bahrain has one of the freest press industries in the world.

However a number of international observers have contradicted this claim. The Human Rights Watch 2015 report noted that King Hamad, the Bahraini head of state, ratified laws which significantly increase the sentences for individuals who are adjudged to have offended the king, Bahrain’s flag, or the national emblem. Such crimes now carry a maximum jail term of seven years and a fine of up to 10,000 Bahraini dinars (£18,500). In addition, the report found that a number of photographers were arrested for carrying out professional activities. For example, Hussain Hubail, was sentenced by a court to a five-year prison term in April 2014 on charges that he used various social media accounts to “incite hatred of the regime,” promoted ignoring the law, and called for illegal demonstrations. The sentence was upheld in September 2015.

Similarly, Amnesty International’s 2015-16 report found that the Bahraini authorities “severely curtailed the rights to freedom of expression and association”. Amnesty offer the example of Nabeel Rajab who was arrested in April 2015 for posts on Twitter about the use of torture in Bahraini prisons and for criticising Saudi-led air strikes in Yemen. In May, an appeal court upheld his earlier six-month sentence for “publicly insulting official institutions”. Rajab was then re-arrested early Monday morning this week. The exact reasons for the re-arrest remain unclear.

Crucially, the FCO’s 2015 human rights report notes that “there are continued concerns regarding freedom of speech and expression and peaceful assembly”. Numerous rankings of press freedom also indicate that Bahrain heavily restricts freedom of expression. The Freedom of the Press Index 2015 - published by the nonpartisan US NGO, Freedom House - found that Bahrain ranked 84th of 97 countries for press freedom. Similarly, the 2016 World Press Freedom Index - published by Reporters without Borders - found that Bahrain ranked 162nd of 180 countries.


The Bahraini Government claims that it has significantly reduced the use of torture in the last 10 years. In 2014, the Bahraini Ministry of Interior published a report in which they denied the systemic use of torture by government.

This view is challenged by a number of international organisations. Human Rights Watch finds that torture of detainees continued, and worsened, in 2014. They report that individuals detained by the Criminal Investigations Directorate (CID) - a government agency responsible for investigating and prosecuting criminals - were routinely tortured. Detainees reported a range of torture methods used by the CID. These included electric shock, prolonged suspension in painful positions, severe beatings, threats to rape and kill, forced standing, exposure to extreme cold, and sexual abuse. They also note that Bahrain continues to use torture in its prisons.

Amnesty International found that torture and other forms of ill-treatment, remained routine, particularly within the CID. They report that police and other security officials frequently beat or otherwise abuse people when arresting them and transporting them to police stations. At Jaw Prison, one of Bahrain’s main prisons on the southeastern coast, detainees faced repeated beatings. They were also forced to sleep in tents. Following a disturbance at the prison in March 2015, prisoners were denied any communication with their families for several weeks.

The US Department of State human rights report concludes that the use of torture is widespread in Bahrain.

Rule of law

The Bahraini Government has argued that it fairly implements the rule of law. For example, it has stated that civil society institutions, human rights organizations, and media representatives are allowed to attend trials. However, Human Rights Watch reports only organisations which are sympathetic to the Government are offered such privileges.  

Amnesty International’s 2015-16 report finds that hundreds of Bahraini people were convicted in unfair trials on a number of charges such as rioting, illegal gathering or committing terrorism-related offences. Accordingly, many prosecutors in cases related to terrorism relied exclusively on the evidence of “confessions” which defendants claimed that interrogators had forced them to make under duress; some received death sentences.

Amnesty highlight the case of Abbas Jamil al-Samea’ and two other men who were sentenced to death in February 2015. The three defendants had been convicted of a bombing in March 2014. Amnesty states that, during the trial, the court failed to adequately pursue their allegations of torture and other ill-treatment by CID interrogators. The defendants were also denied access to their lawyers until their trial began; their lawyers were prevented from viewing the full case file, and their pleas to cross-examine prosecution witnesses were ignored.

Moreover, Amnesty also find that public officials often benefit from lenient sentences and frequent acquittals. For instance, in April 2015, a court acquitted a police officer of causing the death of Fadhel Abbas Muslim Marhoon, who had been shot January 2014. The officer was jailed for only three months for shooting a man in the stomach who was accompanying Abbas.

Similarly, Human Rights Watch finds a number of examples of unfair trials. For example, in February 2016, a Bahraini court convicted the secretary general of the largest legally recognised opposition political party, which was suspended this week, of three speech-related crimes and jailed him for four years. Human Rights Watch states that the presiding judge prevented defense lawyers from utilising evidence which may have prevented his prosecution. For example, the judge refused to allow defense lawyers to play recordings of the secretary general’s speeches for which he was convicted. The judge stated that “the intent of them is to raise doubts about the substantiating evidence that has persuaded the court.”


Most international observers find that Bahrain commits systemic human rights violations. More worryingly, many observers find little evidence of Bahrain reducing the number, or severity, of its violations. Yet, a Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy report, published this week, claimed that the UK has become “an unconditional ally” of Bahrain

This has significant implications for the FCO. It is always extremely difficult to measure the impact of the FCO’s ‘soft’, behind-the-scenes diplomacy. Working closely with foreign government’s may be the most effective way of reducing human rights violations. As the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Crispin Blunt MP, argued in a recent Bright Blue publication, “megaphone diplomacy and noisy condemnations will always be heard, but may not always be effective with the key decision makers”.

Yet, if the Bahraini Government is not reducing its human rights violations then the effectiveness of this ‘soft’ diplomacy must be questioned. The FCO risks being perceived to be “downgrading” human rights in favour of trade, particularly as it continues to permit Bahrain to fund a Royal Navy base.

James Dobson is a researcher at Bright Blue