The emerging role of small states amidst the crisis of multilateralism

By Christabel Fernandez

My time at the United Nations exposed me to the many fascinating facets of multilateralism and international relations. International Organisations like the United Nations are indeed a beacon of hope to peaceful international cooperation and a prevention of a third world war. Yet my time there also exposed me to the almost crippling and unbelievable reality of how IOs operate, and the blatant disregard for international norms and standards that large and powerful countries have. While the criticism against the abuse of power by states like those in the Security Council’s Permanent Five (P5) are widely known, less is known about the camp of small states that are seeing their collective voice grow, and for a more noble cause.  

Coming from Singapore, I have always had a sort of “soft spot” for small states and their struggles in international diplomacy. Their fights are numerous, from overcoming resource limitations, security and trying to gain legitimacy on an international level, and these are just some examples. Singapore, however, a tiny island nation-state, has managed to somehow make a mark in the world today. From leading the UNCLOS negotiations, [1] to holding key leadership positions in international organizations, [2] Singapore and Singaporeans have created a reputation for themselves as small, but capable. There is an affectionate term we use in my country known as being like “chilli padi”, a tiny red pepper with fiery seeds found in Southeast Asia – referring to the ability to pack an underestimated mean punch despite your small size. Continue reading “The emerging role of small states amidst the crisis of multilateralism”

Pushing the limits of the European Union: What is the Hungarian government really aiming for?

By Dorottya Kósa

Over the past few days, my international friends have been bombarding me with questions concerning the new emergency law in my home country, Hungary. Receiving messages full of worries and having to pick up the phone to answer questions about the collapse of democracy in Hungary encouraged me to write this article. I hope to clarify certain things about the new legal realities and how it in fact did not change Hungary’s political powers.

Crash course on the legal framework of Hungary

Article No. 53 (State of Danger) of the Fundamental Law – the Constitution of Hungary – covers special legal orders for extreme circumstances such as a national crisis or a state of emergency. In a state of danger the government has the power to adopt means to suspend the application of certain acts, deviate from them, and take extraordinary measures. [1] As Article No. 53 declares, the means shall remain in force only for fifteen days, but the National Assembly can extend their power by voting every second week. The fourth paragraph pronounces that “upon the termination of the state in danger, such decrees of the Government shall cease to have effect.”

The definition of the state of danger is specified in Act No. CXXVIII of 2011, which focuses on disaster management. Based on this Act and on the Fundamental Law of Hungary, the governing party, Fidesz, declared the state of danger in the current situation of global pandemic. [2] Shortly after, on 30 March 2020, the Hungarian parliament with 138 votes for, and 53 against had passed the bill on the Coronavirus Protection Act (2020.évi XII. törvény a koronavírus elleni védekezésről). [3]

Absolute power or powerful absolute

The new law allows the government to rule by decree for an indefinite period of time, until the state of emergency is over. [4] According to the Coronavirus Act, the Government may exercise its powers to the extent necessary and proportionate to prevent, treat, eradicate the epidemic and to prevent or eliminate its harmful effects. [5] There were immediate accusations of abuse of power by many international media channels, as they feared the destruction of democratic values in Hungary.

However, putting on our “reality check glasses,” not much has changed in Hungarian politics with the passing of the Coronavirus Act other than at the theoretical level. Viktor Orbán’s party has two-thirds of the seats in parliament since 2010. Fidesz has the majority of votes and the power to change and construct (or deconstruct) the legal system in their favor. [6] Even without the new law that gives Orbán unprecedented emergency powers, the Fidesz-dominated parliament could theoretically extend the state of danger as long as they wish.

The trap is ready

On 31 March 2020, just one day after the two-thirds passed the Coronavirus Act, Viktor Orbán said in a Facebook video that “the opposition parties did not vote for the state of danger’s prolongation. Our boat got a leak.” What he meant by the video message is that the opposition does not take the pandemic situation seriously enough and would endanger the health and safety of Hungarian citizens by voting against the Corona Act. However, the opposition voted against the bill because they wanted it to have a defined time period.

Since Fidesz already had the power of majority, this Corona Act might just be another populist trick for the approaching national elections. Framing the opposition as the ‘other’ that is counterproductive in times of crisis fits perfectly within the party’s rhetoric. Hence, this pandemic could be another opportunity for Orbán to stay in power and heighten populist narratives of strong leadership. As a global economic crisis emerges, the pandemic can cause governing regimes to lose large parts of their voting bases. [7] However, if ruling parties handle the corona crisis well, they might gain even more supporters than before.

Gábor Török, a Hungarian political scientist, said he would not be surprised if Fidesz would propose an early national election right after the pandemic crisis. He suspects a trap set for the opposition – which they directly walked into. [8] Yet Fidesz already has a well-established ground with its two-third majority and they did not really need the new Coronavirus Act to stay in power. Were all these efforts only to fool the opposition while generating international outrage and risking aid restrictions from the European Union?

Pushing the limits

The passing of the Coronavirus Act resulted in center-right political leaders asking Donald Tusk to expel Fidesz from the European People’s Party (EPP). [9] This happened before, for instance during last year’s European Parliamentary elections, when the EPP was reluctant to include Orbán’s party after controversial debates from member parties. However, the EPP needed the Hungarian votes and knew Fidesz supporters will be active and participate in forming the future of the EU. [10]

The EU is keeping a close eye on Hungarian politics since the report of Dutch MEP Judith Sargentini expressing concerns regarding the government’s abuse of migrants, restrictions on press freedom, corruption and conflicts of interest, and “stereotypical attitudes” towards women. [11] Sargentini called for urgent measures evoking Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union that permits the EU to suspend certain rights of a member state. However, the article does not contain any information on possible mechanisms to expel a member. Already two years had passed since the process initiated, but no sanctions were imposed so far. Moreover, Fidesz used the charges of the EU to build and strengthen their nationalist, Eurosceptic narratives.

On 2 April 2020, President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, expressed her concerns regarding the developments in Hungary saying that Orbán’s measures went too far. [12] Yet once again there is no real action taken, and the issue stays on the rhetoric level. Currently, it looks like the Hungarian government is winning this battle: It looks like the EU is unlikely to impose punitive measures on Orbán, Fidesz, or Hungary. [13]

To sum it up

Viktor Orbán managed to convert the communist Hungary into a vibrant democracy, only to then transform it into a semi-autocratic member state of the European Union under only one political party’s ruling. Since Fidesz has the majority of the seats in the Hungarian Parliament, it has all the power with or without the Corona Act. Warning words of European leaders will not scare Viktor Orbán. In fact, they work counterproductively, since they provide the Hungarian Prime Minister with new narratives about the incompetence of the EU. You could say that Orbán has won because of the European response. It is likely the Hungarian government will continue strengthening its grip on power by outplaying and weakening the national opposition, thereby further challenging the democratic stability and the credibility of the European Union.

Picture: Pedro Antunes, Flickr

Sources: 

[1] “The Fundamental Law of Hungary (25 April 2011).”

[2] “Act No. CXXVIII of 2011 Concerning Disaster Management and Amending Certain Related Acts.,” accessed April 4, 2020, https://www.ecolex.org/details/legislation/act-no-cxxviii-of-2011-concerning-disaster-management-and-amending-certain-related-acts-lex-faoc129205/.

[3] Arató Gergely, Móring József Attila, and Tordai Bence, “Országgyűlési Napló, Kövér László, Jakab István, Dr. Latorcai János És Lezsák Sándor Elnöklete Alatt, 2018-2022. Országgyűlési Ciklus, Budapest, 2020. Március 30. Hétfő 115. Szám,” March 30, 2020. https://www.parlament.hu/documents/10181/1569934/ny200330_.pdf/1645e5f4-1225-c261-e3f9-5d62280faf7d?t=1585888197151.

[4] “Index – In English – Hungarian Coronavirus Act Passes, Granting Viktor Orbán Unprecedented Emergency Powers,” accessed April 4, 2020, https://index.hu/english/2020/03/30/hungary_coronavirus_act_parliament_viktor_orban_fidesz_sweeping_powers_indefinite_term/

[5] “2020. Évi XII. Törvény a Koronavírus Elleni Védekezésről,” Magyar Közlöny, March 30, 2020, http://www.magyarkozlony.hu.

[6] “Hungary Election Gives Orban Big Majority, and Control of Constitution – The New York Times,” accessed April 4, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/08/world/europe/hungary-election-viktor-orban.html.

[7] Philipp Carlsson-Szlezak, Martin Reeves, and Paul Swartz, “Understanding the Economic Shock of Coronavirus,” Harvard Business Review, March 27, 2020, https://hbr.org/2020/03/understanding-the-economic-shock-of-coronavirus.

[8] “Török Gábor: Előrehozott választások felé viheti a kabinet az országot | Mandiner,” mandiner.hu, accessed April 5, 2020, https://mandiner.hu/cikk/20200326_torok_gabor_elorehozott_valasztasok_fele_viheti_a_kabinet_aorszagot.

[9] Sarantis Michalopoulos, “Centre-Right Leaders Ask Tusk to Expel Orban’s Fidesz from EPP,” http://Www.Euractiv.Com (blog), April 2, 2020, https://www.euractiv.com/section/politics/news/centre-right-leaders-ask-tusk-to-expel-orbans-fidesz-from-epp/.

[10] “Fidesz: ‘We Are EPP’s Most Successful Member Party and We Oppose Migration,’” Hungary Today (blog), May 27, 2019, https://hungarytoday.hu/fidesz-ep-election-epp-migration/.

[11] Alice Cuddy, “European Parliament Votes to Trigger Article 7 Sanctions Procedure against Hungary,” euronews, September 12, 2018, https://www.euronews.com/2018/09/12/european-parliament-votes-to-trigger-Article-7-sanctions-procedure-against-hungary.

[12] “Von Der Leyen ‘concerned’ over Hungary Virus Emergency Law,” http://Www.Euractiv.Com (blog), April 3, 2020, https://www.euractiv.com/section/justice-home-affairs/news/von-der-leyen-concerned-over-hungary-virus-emergency-law/.

[13] “Hungarian Press Roundup: Article 7 Procedure against Hungary,” Hungary Today (blog), September 19, 2019, https://hungarytoday.hu/hungarian-press-article-7-rule-law/.

Bibliography:

“2020. Évi XII. Törvény a Koronavírus Elleni Védekezésről.” Magyar Közlöny, March 30, 2020. http://www.magyarkozlony.hu.

“Act No. CXXVIII of 2011 Concerning Disaster Management and Amending Certain Related Acts.” Accessed April 4, 2020. https://www.ecolex.org/details/legislation/act-no-cxxviii-of-2011-concerning-disaster-management-and-amending-certain-related-acts-lex-faoc129205/.

Arató Gergely, Móring József Attila, and Tordai Bence. “Országgyűlési Napló, Kövér László, Jakab István, Dr. Latorcai János És Lezsák Sándor Elnöklete Alatt, 2018-2022. Országgyűlési Ciklus, Budapest, 2020. Március 30. Hétfő 115. Szám,” March 30, 2020. https://www.parlament.hu/documents/10181/1569934/ny200330_.pdf/1645e5f4-1225-c261-e3f9-5d62280faf7d?t=1585888197151.

Carlsson-Szlezak, Philipp, Martin Reeves, and Paul Swartz. “Understanding the Economic Shock of Coronavirus.” Harvard Business Review, March 27, 2020. https://hbr.org/2020/03/understanding-the-economic-shock-of-coronavirus.

Cuddy, Alice. “European Parliament Votes to Trigger Article 7 Sanctions Procedure against Hungary.” euronews, September 12, 2018. https://www.euronews.com/2018/09/12/european-parliament-votes-to-trigger-article-7-sanctions-procedure-against-hungary.

Hungary Today. “Fidesz: ‘We Are EPP’s Most Successful Member Party and We Oppose Migration,’” May 27, 2019. https://hungarytoday.hu/fidesz-ep-election-epp-migration/.

Hungary Today. “Hungarian Press Roundup: Article 7 Procedure against Hungary,” September 19, 2019. https://hungarytoday.hu/hungarian-press-article-7-rule-law/.

“Hungary Election Gives Orban Big Majority, and Control of Constitution – The New York Times.” Accessed April 4, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/08/world/europe/hungary-election-viktor-orban.html.

“Index – In English – Hungarian Coronavirus Act Passes, Granting Viktor Orbán Unprecedented Emergency Powers.” Accessed April 4, 2020. https://index.hu/english/2020/03/30/hungary_coronavirus_act_parliament_viktor_orban_fidesz_sweeping_powers_indefinite_term/.

Michalopoulos, Sarantis. “Centre-Right Leaders Ask Tusk to Expel Orban’s Fidesz from EPP.” Www.Euractiv.Com (blog), April 2, 2020. https://www.euractiv.com/section/politics/news/centre-right-leaders-ask-tusk-to-expel-orbans-fidesz-from-epp/.

“The Fundamental Law of Hungary (25 April 2011).” Ministry of Justice, 2017. https://www.kormany.hu/download/f/3e/61000/TheFundamentalLawofHungary_20180629_FIN.pdf.

mandiner.hu. “Török Gábor: Előrehozott választások felé viheti a kabinet az országot | Mandiner.” Accessed April 5, 2020. https://mandiner.hu/cikk/20200326_torok_gabor_elorehozott_valasztasok_fele_viheti_a_kabinet_az_orszagot.

http://www.euractiv.com. “Von Der Leyen ‘concerned’ over Hungary Virus Emergency Law,” April 3, 2020. https://www.euractiv.com/section/justice-home-affairs/news/von-der-leyen-concerned-over-hungary-virus-emergency-law/.

What the hell is (still) going on in Chile?

Interview conducted by Guilherme Becker

Since October 2019 Chile is (almost literally) on fire. Just to have an idea of the situation, let’s start taking a look at some numbers regarding the protests that since then erupted against the government and the whole social and economic system in the South American country: At least 30 dead as well as thousands injured and jailed. Among the injured, many went blind because of rubber bullets shot by police – it is estimated that more than 200 people have got eye problems. The demonstrations have also affected the daily life, the public transport and the political spectrum. Monuments, buildings and historical places have been constantly damaged, as the streets are still full of people angrily protesting.

That is the summary of something that might have been postponed for decades.

During my internship at Deutsche Welle, in Bonn, I had the opportunity to meet people from different newsrooms. DW has newsrooms in more than 30 different languages, so imagine that it is a piece of the world inside its own world. One of the journalists that I met was José Urrejola, from Chile, who has been covering the whole situation and its developments. With a local perspective but also through an international coverage of the facts, in this interview he explains what is going on in his country, and explicitly argues that “the protests will continue until this president resigns or a ‘miracle’ happens, and he decides to make the changes that people are asking for.”

Euroculturer Magazine: What is actually happening in Chile? Tell us a little bit about the paths that the country took in the last decades and also why the protests erupted now, by the end of last year.

José Urrejola: Firstly we have to put it into context. From my perspective as well from the perspective of many other political experts and scientists, the current problems of Chile originated mainly in the periods of dictatorship and post-dictatorship. During this dark period in Chilean history, with Augusto Pinochet in power, the country established a constitution in which, among other things, gives the country’s economic elite the power to buy and sell whatever they want. Private property is stronger and more protected than what belongs to the state. That has led, for example, to the fact that even something as basic as drinking water supplies belongs to private companies. Even though Chile has actually grown economically speaking after the dictatorship, the wealth has been accumulated among families of the economic elite, and only a small percentage of this money goes to other social classes. The people in Chile are not protesting because of lack of food or because they cannot buy shoes for their children. Chileans are protesting because of a thousand abuses featured by the economic and political elites that have ruled the country over the last three decades, after the return to democracy, in 1990. People are demanding “dignity”, that is, systems that cover basic needs, with a decent health system, a decent pension system and qualified education, among other things. It is hoped that with the plebiscite for a new constitution new systems can be established for the society.

EM: The government has already pointed out signs for reforms, but the protests continue. Do you believe in a possible deadline for the protests?

JU: It doesn’t matter which reform this government establishes, nothing will satisfy the demands of the people. The president Sebastián Piñera, one of the richest men in Chile, represents the questionable economic elite. He is not the right man to solve this crisis. Basically, if he was up to accept the reforms claimed by the citizens and subsequently change the system, structurally speaking, he and other rich people would be affected and would have to give up the power. Therefore, the protests are going to continue until this president resigns or a “miracle” occurs and he decides to make the changes that the people are asking for.

EM: Do you believe that the riots were already predicted by all sides of it, government and students, unions and the social classes most affected by liberal policies? I mean, they all knew that one day it was going to happen?

JU: Personally I don’t believe people who say “we didn’t see it was coming” or “we didn’t know this could happen”. This social outburst was foreshadowed some years ago, but no one really took it seriously. We can agree that it took long for Chileans to show their dissatisfaction, that they were “asleep” and allowing these abuses for a long time. However, I would describe this as a ticking bomb that sooner or later was going to explode and the trigger was those 30 Pesos in the transport (the demonstrations started after the Chilean government has raised the price of public transport tickets).

EM: How do you face the fact of students now having migrated the protest to the intellectual part of the process? In this case, in Chile, you have to take a test to get into universities, and the students said that this year they will not take this test. What do you think about this and which can be the consequences of this act?

JU: Well, the first people that started doing something regarding the price of the public transport tickets were high school students. It’s the young people who started moving the country. And we could say that this social explosion was “agglutinating” because it binds up all the demands of the citizens: health, education, pensions etc. In the case of the education sector, young students are aware that the Prueba de Selección Universitaria (University Selection Test) is part of the bad Chilean education system. This test endorses social segmentation: while the richest have a better education through a private system, those with less income do not get high scores and have no options to study. In addition, they are forced to get into debt if they want to study. Therefore the problem is not the final test, but the education system that results in enormous differences through income levels. Regarding the actions taken by young people, unfortunately they could not manage to change anything by boycotting the test. Perhaps they managed to get people talking about it, but the underlying problems are rather structural in society. The fault is not the test itself, even though I don’t think it’s good either because it only measures knowledge and not skills.

EM: More liberal sectors have said that the situation in Chile could be even worse if liberal policies had not been launched in recent decades. In this case, these people want to say that Chile could be in an even worse financial situation. What do you think about that?

JU: Part of the society is asking for an overall change in the country’s economic system. I don’t think that’s possible. To me it seems that it is not arguable that Chile has grown through liberal policies in recent years. Meanwhile the wealth has mainly remained with the economic elite, as I mentioned earlier, and just a small percentage of that went to the rest of the society. Chile still has a neoliberal or capitalist system, whatever you want to call it. Nevertheless the country is not growing anymore. It is stagnated, though that meets the current financial situation in a global context. So it is not because the system in Chile is effective or not. Anyway the problems of the Chilean economy are different: it is not dynamic, it is an old-fashioned economy, in which the exploitation of raw materials such as copper, lithium, agriculture and wine are its main markets. If Chile is not capable of developing in terms of innovation, technology or industries, it does not matter what model it has: it will not grow economically. In modern times, it is also necessary to aim at a circular economy, with a focus on the environment. Chile is far away from this and it does happen precisely because of the country’s economic elite. Most of these people are concerned in accumulating more wealth for their personal well-being.

EM: In your point of view, what is the future of Chile and Latin America?

JU: It’s hard to answer this question. In Chile, I don’t see a possible short-term solution. The first thing the country should do is changing the constitution, which was idealized during the dictatorship. Otherwise the economic elite will continue to rule the country. But even if a new Magna Carta is written, there is still a long way to define which society the country wants to build, which pension system, which health system, which education system, among other important ones. In Latin America, I believe that we should focus our efforts on promoting policies that are aligned with the global context, that is, adopting a circular economy, concerned with the environment, and also fighting against the continent’s economic inequality. However, I do not imagine that this will happen soon, unfortunately.

Picture: Nelson Anguita, protestas Santiago, Flickr

HK Protest – Not Only about An Extradition Bill

Bruce Lee once shared his philosophy with others: “Be formless, be shapeless, like water. Water can flow, or it can crash. Be water my friend.”  This Hong Kong-American actor would not expect that 47 years after his death his philosophy of life would be adopted by protesters in Hong Kong against their own government.

After a tear gas grenade been hurled towards the protesting crowds, two masked protesters quickly covered the smoking grenade with a traffic corn and poured the bottled water through the hole on top of it to put out the smoke, as if they had been trained to deal with tear shell for a long time. In the meantime, other gathered protesters started drawing back with opening umbrellas in their hands pointing at the police force in case of more tear bombs. They moved together towards the next neighbouring street. This scene has been happening everywhere in Hong Kong for more than five months already. 

The protest that involved more than millions of people in Hong Kong has become the largest uprising so far against local government and Beijing authorities in the back. Unlike the last big scale protest broke out in 2014, so called the Umbrella Revolution, where people occupied all central areas of the city and refused to leave, this time Hongkongers learned their lessons and became more flexible. They haunted in every corner of the city and once they met the police they strategically pulled out and moved to another “battleground”, formless and shapeless, “like water”, as Bruce Lee said.

The starting point of this protest on an unprecedented scale is an Amendment. Three months ago the HK government tried to push ahead with an Amendment of the existing extradition law titled Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill 2019, in which it was regulated that in the future the fugitives arrested in Hong Kong can be extradited to Macau, Taiwan, and most controversially, Mainland China.

On June 9th, around one million people occupied the street with signs written NO CHINA EXTRADITION in their hands. However, in the following days as the police started shooting tear gas bombs and rubber bullets towards gathered crowds, the peaceful protests escalated to a series of riots quickly. Soon, the situation further deteriorated while the protesters blocked the HK airport and a mainland China journalist was beaten up by angry protesters. The relative video went viral on Chinese social media Weibo and stirred up the anger from Chinese side and resulted in a huge and still on-going online flame war between HK and mainland China people.

However, although the protestors’ emotional and violent actions at the airport and their decision to block the whole airport, which led to thousands of passengers stranded at the airport, are debatable, it is inappropriate simply defining this pro-democracy protest as a sinister interference by Western Powers that tried to “subvert China’s political system” nor defining the protesters as “rioters” or even “terrorists”, as stated by Chinese official media report.

HK problem is a long-rooted problem. The Amendment for extradition bill just lit the fuse. Since Hong Kong was handed over from Britain in 1997, the dissatisfaction of HK citizens toward HK government has raised a lot. 

According to a public opinion poll conducted by Hong Kong University, in 2019 only 10.8% of Hong Kong citizens identified themselves as “Chinese” and more than 50% chose “Hongkonger”. One of the reasons behind is the decreasing credibility of the government. Taking the Amendment as example, the protesters’ biggest concern is that after the Amendment get approved, Hong Kong citizens and foreigners passing through the city can be arrested and sent to mainland China for trials due to political reasons. But actually, HK government specifically underlined that human rights will still be guaranteed that no suspect of political offences will be covered under the bill. 

However, it is clear that citizens do not trust their government anymore, which is reasonable considering Wing-Kee Lam’s experience. In 2005, Wing-Kee Lam, a Hong Kong bookseller who sold books critical for China, was arrested in Hong Kong and detained in China later for “operating a bookstore illegally”. Currently Lam has fled to Taiwan in fear of the approval of the Amendment.

Also, during the past two months, HK government’s double standard and inaction only raised more substantial doubts on itself. On 21st July, more than 20 men in white shirts showed up in Yuen Long area and attacked all black-dressed (the protesters’ united dressing color) passersby indiscriminately, including old people and pregnant women. According to witnesses, the emergency call that could not get connected for a long time and the local police station was closed. Some even stated that they saw the police, who witnessed the bloody and violent attacks of white-shirt men, just turned around and left. Until today, 28 arrested white men have all been bailed and only two of them were prosecuted. Compared to the police’s quick reaction to the protesters, their actions that night made the citizens start questioning whether the police received orders from the government and whether the government is taking double standard against pro-China and pro-Hong Kong demonstrators.

On the other hand, the protests have been lasting for more than five months but HK government neither took any concrete actions nor answered any demands of citizens. It keeps condemning protesters’ violence but ignored the truth that HK police took unnecessary and inhumane actions against the demonstrators such as shooting with bean bag round at a very close distance, which violated the term of use and had led to a girl’s blindness. For now, HK government’s strategy is obviously taking no actions and this was what they have done five years ago during the Umbrella Revolution, which ended under the pressure of growing discontent citizens who had been tired of month-long protest. However, this time, there’s no tendency yet that the on-going protest will be ceasing in the near future.

When Hong Kong was handed over to China in 1997, it was promised that for the next 50 years Hong Kong’s civic freedom and “a high degree of autonomy” would be guaranteed. These 50 years are supposed to be a transition time for Hong Kong to entirely return to China. However, there seems to have been signs that China’s “one country, two systems” policy is failing and the gap between mainland China and Hong Kong is actually expanding. The protest started from an extradition bill but is not only about it. It is a concentrated outbreak of long-rooted and deep-rooted problems. What will happen next? What will happen after the 50 years limit finish? There’s still no answer for it.

 

References: 

“Hong Kong-China Extradition Plans Explained.” BBC News. BBC, August 22, 2019. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-47810723

Kirby, Jen. “As Hong Kong Protests Continue, Mob Violence against Demonstrators Casts a Shadow.” Vox. Vox, July 22, 2019. https://www.vox.com/2019/7/22/20704239/hong-kong-protests-mov-yuen-long-beijing

Liu, Nicolle. “What Is Hong Kong’s Extradition Bill?” Financial Times. Financial Times, June 11, 2019. https://www.ft.com/content/2063019c-7619-11e9-be7d-6d846537acab

McBride, Terry Lee. “Bruce Lee Be As Water My Friend.” YouTube. YouTube, August 14, 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cJMwBwFj5nQ

O’Connor, Tom. “China State Media Says the West Will Never Get Hong Kong Back as Protesters Attack Journalist.” Newsweek, August 13, 2019. https://www.newsweek.com/china-media-hong-kong-attack-1454130

University (the) of Hong Kong, “Table.” Table – HKUPOP. Accessed August 13, 2019. https://www.hkupop.hku.hk/english/popexpress/ethnic/eidentity/halfyr/datatables.html

Who Polices the Internet? Content Removal v. Freedom of Speech

 

napalm2n-1-web.jpg
Napalm Girl, an iconic image of the Vietnam war

Julia Mason

Can we continue relying on internet hosts to be solely responsible for taking down offensive content or hate speech?

Last week’s headlines traced the scuffle between Norway and Mark Zuckerberg when one of Norway’s largest newspapers, Aftenposten, criticised Facebook for removing their photos of the ‘napalm girl’ on account of child nudity. The photo of the ‘napalm girl’ or Phan Thị Kim Phúc, from Vietnam and now a Canadian citizen, was taken  on 7th June1972 during the Vietnam War. It shows her as a nine year-old-child, running away from a South Vietnamese napalm attack which left her severely burned. Taken by Nick Ut of the Associated Press, the image is world famous for its depiction of the violence of the Vietnam conflict. Zuckerberg later reneged on his decision to remove the photo and acknowledged the iconic status of the historical image. Whilst this incident might primarily raise alarm bells about the power that Facebook wields over our modern lives, it is also symptomatic of the arbitrariness of online content monitoring.

Alongside its status as one of the most democratic exercises in information sharing, the internet is home to an increasing body of offensive content and unchecked manifestations of hate speech. Whilst some self-censuring is taking place, (for example in the form of ‘NSFW’ indications and ‘content notes’), such warnings are essentially used in a humorous manner. If there’s to be a concerted effort to tackle hate speech and offensive material which transcends the old adage of turning a blind eye, how is this to be achieved?

Should governments and the international community have a role to play?

ecthr.jpg
The European Court of Human Rights

Simply put, the answer from the European Convention on Human Rights is a resounding no. Article 10 ECHR guarantees freedom of expression for all and goes on to say that:

 ‘This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.’

This freedom is extended to internet users and the Secretary General of the Council of Europe has confirmed that ‘the state [must] not exercise surveillance over Internet users’ communications and activity on the internet except when this is strictly in compliance with Articles 8 and 10 of the Convention.’ The Court’s case law confirms a support for freedom of expression, even if the article does allow some margin of appreciation for states to take restrictive measures, as was the case in Delfi v. Estonia [2015], where the court held that there had not been a violation of Article 10.

Similarly, Article 11 of the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights provides that ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers’.

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This is inherently a good thing. Of course there are some countries in Europe where the systematic blocking of whole websites has severely reduced freedom of expression and access to internet material to an unacceptable level. Consider the recent ECHR case, Cengiz and others v. Turkey, where the court unanimously held that there had been a violation of article 10 due to the blocking of access to Google over a long period(Ahmet Yıldırım v. Turkey [2012]). And yet, the question we must ask ourselves is, if governments aren’t checking online content, then who is?

Net neutrality: a commercial myth?

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One of the many images associated with the campaign for net neutrality, but is there more to it than open internet?

The hands-off approach taken to internet monitoring by national governments (as advised by the Council of Europe and EU) results in a two-fold problem:

  1. this leaves internet providers and website hosts – i.e. private companies in charge of monitoring content;
  2. these companies are sensitive to legal threats, as well as their reputation among their users and end up haphazardly take down content without serious reflection.

In the case of the former, the crux is this: when we leave it to web hosts to decide what is suitable content and what isn’t, we are allowing organisations with their own commercial, social and political agendas to act as the moral arbiters for all society. Is this democratic?

And in the case of the latter, this is exactly what happened with Facebook napalm incident. Is this double burden of total freedom and total responsibility not actually counter-productive to freedom of expression online? As the 2016 Annual report on state of human rights, democracy and rule of law in Europe concludes:

‘the fact that internet intermediaries fear being held liable for the content they transmit may have a chilling effect on the freedom of expression online.’

If we’re serious about blocking hate speech and inappropriate content, we need more explicit guidelines from governments and IOs. As it stands, we hail our freedom from government censorship but are trapped in an online game where private web hosts write their own rulebooks.

Click here for more by Julia Mason.

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