Hong Kong police fired pepper spray and dispersed protesters with batons on Friday night in the process of tearing down most of a protest encampment in the city's Mong Kok district. But organizers of the so-called "Umbrella Movement" are already searching for new strategies to push for greater electoral freedoms beyond simply occupying parts of the city – and some lawmakers championing the movement are looking to faraway Geneva.
Emily Lau Wai-hing, a legislator with the Democratic Party, said she plans to travel with fellow party members to Geneva, Switzerland to raise the issue of electoral reform with the United Nations Human Rights (UNHR) Committee on Oct. 23.
Lau spoke of her plans as police reportedly beat and pepper-sprayed protesters returning to the demonstration site in Hong Kong’s Mong Kok shopping district, where they had attempted to clear traffic-blocking barricades earlier in the day.
“We want to put Hong Kong on the agenda,” Lau said.
The UNHR Committee asked the territory to compile a report on suffrage last year, and Lau said she and her colleagues are ready to present their verdict.
“We would like to inform the Committee that the decision made by the [National People’s Congress] on Aug. 31 … will not give voters a choice.”
The Chinese central government’s August resolution states that candidates for Hong Kong’s top office would be chosen by a Beijing-approved nominating committee. But critics say this effectively bars anyone critical of the Beijing government from running for office.
Lau added that what she called police brutality in response to pro-electoral freedom protests would be high up on the agenda.
Martin Lee Chun-ming, often called Hong Kong’s “father of democracy” and a longtime advocate for democratic freedoms, said he has found occasional instances of police brutality disturbing.
“I saw on local television a policeman actually pulling the eye covers from a protester and spraying [pepper spray] into their eyes. That’s assault — certainly excessive force,” Lee said, adding that on the first day of protests, he himself was one of the targets of the 87 teargas canisters launched into crowds that sparked public outrage in Hong Kong and around the globe.
U.S. officials have called for Hong Kong authorities to investigate the alleged beating of 39-year-old protester Ken Tsang Kin-chiu by a group of plainclothes police officers on Wednesday.
A press release from Occupy Central, one of the primary protest groups, featured photos of deep gashes and wounds sustained by demonstrators after police cracked down on the protest camps.
Lau’s U.N. bid comes as organizers endeavor to find next steps, now that the police are restricting demonstrations on Hong Kong streets to cordoned off sidewalks to prevent the disruption of traffic and allow business as usual to continue in the Asian financial hub.
Movement leaders “are currently focused on the second phase of Occupy Central,” said Lau Sau-yin, a spokeswoman for the group, adding that they are also preparing for a proposed dialogue with the government that has been called off multiple times by both sides.
Lau declined to specify what that next phase might entail.
The dialogue between government representatives and protest organizers slated tentatively for next week could result in a modified election nominations committee, said Gary Wong Pui-fung, a sociology professor at Hong Kong University (HKU) who specializes in Hong Kong society.
Wong said that there are legal ambiguities in Beijing’s August resolution that could be tweaked to reorient the nominating committee, in what he said would sharply shift Hong Kong public opinion in favor of the government.
“If the government opened up to have a wider reflection in the electoral nominations committee, the people will accept this with the [condition] that more political reform will come after this,” Wong said.
But the Democratic Party’s Lau (not to be confused with Occupy’s Lau Sau-yin) said the language is not ambiguous and that Beijing's resolution clearly states that there will be no review of Hong Kong’s electoral procedure even following the 2017 elections for the territory’s leader.
The height of Lau’s aspiration for her trip to Geneva is that “the Committee will express concern about such developments and urge the Hong Kong government to reopen the discussion on political reform.”
Lee pointed out that China is a signatory on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, governed by UNHR Committee, which requires China to maintain the civil rights of its citizens.
But it is only the United Nations Security Council, where China is a veto-wielding member, which could hold Beijing accountable for violating international agreements.
But even if the U.N. bid has no legal teeth and plans for Occupy Central 2.0 remain unclear, Lee is confident that a police crackdown on protests won’t stymie Hong Kong’s youth.
“Even if the encampment is cleared, the fight for democracy will not stop,” Lee said.
“This is their first fight for many of them,” Lee said. “For the students, this is just the beginning.”
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