No Offence, No Defence

14 January 2009

Further Observations on a False Accusation

289/365 banging my head against a wall, by obo-bobolina, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic)What happens when justice is done but punishment is impossible? Unlike cases in which no verdict is likely or the jury finding is improbable, when a person is accused of a crime and then cleared of any wrongdoing, there is – more often than not – something of a villain lurking somewhere just out of sight. Police investigations are often dropped for lack of sufficiently relevant evidence, but when there is no evidence of any sort to consider, and seemingly never was, who censures the accuser?

I recently wrote about a domestic helper here in Hong Kong’s mild-mannered Discovery Bay who was accused of sexual assault against a boy just under 3 years of age. This might have been a community horror story had not the employer suspiciously retracted the complaint and asked the woman back to work. That’s not the sort of thing you do if a complaint is even remotely true. But the worst aspect of this little saga wasn’t anything to do with the little boy or his capricious father. No, it was the disturbing fact that the complaint was withdrawn only 2 days after it was made, and in the meanwhile the accused woman had been incarcerated.

Locked up. In detention. Deprived of her freedom.

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Who’s Responsible?

18 September 2008

Thoughts on a Local Hero

Responsibility and conformity are far too often confused. We tend to think of the responsible person as the one who smooths over trouble, avoids unnecessary repercussions and – by and large – supports the status quo. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Responsibility is about understanding the scope of a situation and acting in such a way that a defined set of beneficiaries – regardless of how small or large – do in fact benefit, or at the very worst don’t suffer unduly. Whether the status quo is maintained or mauled is well and truly beside the point.

What’s necessary is a clear understanding of the people to whom you are responsible, what they want and need, and what you can deliver them, in all likelihood. Nothing of this suggests that a responsible person should avoid change or risk. But still we imagine that a responsible father or a responsible citizen should never dream of struggling against authority. And we are so very wrong. It is well within my capacity as a responsible father to act against a government, thereby ensuring, or helping to ensure, that my children need not endure racism or other forms of discrimination, to ensure that they gain the full benefit of the law as it applies to them in its many forms.

But what about the responsible citizen? I would wager no small amount that civic instruction never encourages resistance to state power, never understands the necessity of questioning how that power is channelled towards the populace. The good citizen is the compliant citizen, the complacent citizen. Or so it would seem. But there is another model, the citizen activist, although it wouldn’t be difficult to brush aside many such people as ineffectual. You know, the always protesting type, the politicised refusenik. Still, there is one responsible person who can make a difference, who is always looking to a future of change  – but first allow me to set the scene.

In Hong Kong conformance means short hair and a career structure, a suit and a fist full of business cards. But that doesn’t mean that everyone toes the line. Jeans, t-shirts and deliberately bad haircuts are common, and despite what the stereotype might convey, not many people are really interested in careers. They’re just interested in getting by. One of the city’s true charms is that non-conformance is very much possible, in public life as in private.

Still, Hong Kong is perpetually trying to adjust to one of the least conformist though most responsible activists in its midst. On many levels Leung Kwok-hung is a typically disruptive anarchist – a self-confessed Trotskyite who has been at the throat of authority since the Maoist riots against the British in the late 1960s. In his first term as a Legislative Council member he continually disrupted proceedings, entirely failed to comply with the dress code (his somewhat cringe-worthy trademark is a Che Guevara t-shirt) and spent significant amounts of time either under arrest or in court for various protests. His nickname is Long Hair, and although it’s an accurate description – he refuses to cut it until the mainland government apologises for the Tiananmen Square massacre – it’s not difficult to detect the opprobrium therein

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The Evil People Do

29 July 2008

Human Rights Violated in Hong Kong

Imagine the worst day of your life. Think for a while about a beating that leaves you stunned and panicking. You have a black eye, you’ve been kicked in the groin, your clothes are ripped and otherwise cut – all of them, not just what you’re wearing – your paper money has been torn up and flung to the ground. Clearly this isn’t a mugging because the money meant nothing. And it’s not a rape – the intent was purely malicious, meant to harm, and harm well, rather than violate. How do you feel?

Now think about one more thing. You were beaten for doing your job. Nothing more, nothing less. You were asked to clean up each day after workmen finished renovations at one of your employer’s rental properties. For three days you returned home to be beaten by your employer’s wife for no reason.

This is the life of one domestic helper in Hong Kong.

As I was writing a post on the meaning of freedom earlier I received a phone call detailing the case. The victim has now given evidence to the police, and has been taken to hospital. Two of the group I’m part of are with her and two more are on their way to the police station. They’ll meet another member of our group with yet another domestic helper who is speaking to the police. Still another woman who was beaten by her employer last week has just returned to my family’s apartment – she’s been staying with us since being threatened with a knife and grabbed at so hard her arms bruised.

Physical violence is a daily possibility for many domestic helpers in Hong Kong, but the inhumanity doesn’t end there. At a legal rights meeting on Sunday one woman spoke about only being given one day off a month; others said that they received no pay or were forced to work when sick. Last week another woman was asked to sign a rider on her contract barring her from visiting certain public places, amongst other draconian conditions. She refused, and her employer has been persecuting her ever since.

What links all of these cases, and many more, is that they each involve employers violating the civil and human rights of people who come from other countries. There’s nothing as grandiose as state abuse of power involved – just people being evil to people less fortunate than themselves then returning to their tranquil middle-class lives. The police seem genuinely surprised that it’s happening and most people here would deny that it could happen. Foreign domestic helpers are abused and otherwise mistreated in purely domestic situations, set apart from prying eyes and waging tongues. Like other forms of domestic violence, the victims most often silence themselves for fear of reprisal should they take a stand.

Evil wins because it dares the victim to ask for change, and few societies really want that. We’re working every day to make a difference in a few lives, involving NGOs to do what we can’t, thinking of new ways to identify those brave women who have had enough, who understand human rights are those things that keep them alive. Our task is to make change acceptable, one day at a time.

If you’re reading this in Hong Kong and know of a domestic helper who is being abused or otherwise mistreated, please ask her to contact the police in her district immediately. The phone numbers are available on the police contact page, and the emergency number is 999. The following organisations also provide invaluable help, every day.

Helpers for Domestic Helpers: phone 2523-4020
Mission for Migrant Workers: phone 2522-8264

If you live outside of Hong Kong, please tell someone else about what’s going on here. Every word, anywhere, will help to break the silence.


It’s A Numbers Game

18 July 2008

Will the Hong Kong Racial Discrimination Bill Make a Difference?

Sometimes monumental decisions slip past the public gaze, attracting comment for a while then fading into obscurity. The excuse could well be that we didn’t understand, that events blinded us to reason. But sometimes it’s just because people don’t really care. Hong Kong’s Legislative Council passed its ineptly named Racial Discrimination Bill last Thursday, yet the reaction has been muted. Anti-discrimination groups have been critical of the lacklustre attempt at abiding by global standards of decency, but they’re easily ignored. The focus has been on a simple numbers game, and minorities are always set up to lose.

Freedom from racism is a human right long ignored in Hong Kong. Almost 40 years after Britain signed the UN’s International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, compelling Hong Kong to enact appropriate legislation, the postcolonial result is a mixture of whimsy and whitewash. Crucially, the government has reserved its right to be racist in anything but employment matters. Look under the lid of that particular situation and you’ll see a desire for racial discrimination in immigration policy leap out at you.

Much is said about multicultural Hong Kong, this cosmopolitan ‘World City’, but the government constantly trundles out two time-worn figures – 95% of the populace is Chinese, and only 5% is ‘foreign’, which is a word spoken with gritted teeth hereabouts. The distinction is important because non-Chinese, even long-time ‘foreign’ residents, can never become fully legal citizens.

In other words, civil rights are circumvented in the denial of a human right.

But the infatuation with numbers runs even deeper than that. Non-Chinese are always lumped together as undifferentiated minorities – occasionally under the illusion that they form a coherent “ethnic minority community” – to show that even at their mightiest they can have but little influence. The media commentary that followed the passing of the law last week didn’t focus on how racism deprives people of liberty, and it skipped over the fact that racial discrimination is just plain wrong. Instead it waffled on about a provision in the bill whereby so few non-Chinese speakers could ask for such expensive translations in their own language, in particular situations.

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A State of Mind

31 May 2008

Mental Health and Human Rights Part 1

Shame, by FredArmitage, with Creative Commons LicenceNot all stories go away when the last interview is conducted, the last comment noted, when the final connections fade. Some linger because they defined a moment, or a decade – a vital arc of time – and remind us of a shame that’s never really shifted. They need to be retold because other people should know, have to know. I recently met a very well-respected psychiatrist for whom I’ve been editing almost eight years now – the vagaries of operating over the Internet simply meant we’d never crossed paths in all that time. I mentioned in passing that I grew up in Townsville, the second largest city in Queensland, northern Australia. He responded with a question: did I remember Ward 10B, the psychiatric wing of the Townsville General Hospital, did I know what happened there?

I did, and I also recalled a more recent echo.

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Blogging for Dissidents

13 May 2008

A Handbook and a Change of Heart

Colour my community, by carf, with Creative Commons licenceBlogging, like life, has a habit of sneaking up on you and offering something different from what you expected. I had intended to use this post to introduce a new set of microreviews in the sidebar, but circumstances led me to a change of heart. I decided to drop the negative No! No! No! review category and use the spare text box for something far more important – a link to the Handbook for Blogging and Cyber-Dissidents published by Reporters Without Borders. A copy of the handbook’s cover is there now on the right, with a brief explanation of what it’s all about.

I came by the handbook through a slightly twisted route that’s worth mentioning because it’ll feature in another post soon. Like the photographs in this post, a good few of the photos I’ve been using lately were posted on Flickr by the Children at Risk Foundation. CARF operates in Brazil and the Netherlands to defend the rights of street kids, and to help them out. Gregory Smith, the organisation’s founder, takes the stunning photos, which shift me through a range of emotions even as they move through other people’s more difficult but no less promising lives.

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Avoiding Human Rights

12 May 2008

How Less Obvious Abuse Persists

Every child has their rights, by carf, with Creative Commons licence Mention the importance of human rights and you’ll usually conjure haunting images of freedom denied, societies ruined and bodies maimed. That’s serious stuff, and surely enough to make even the most light-hearted person stop and think. But not all violations are as noticeable or straightforward. Often protection is in place for the most minor of rights, but it’s systematically challenged, eroded and finally ignored.

Following my last post on the lack of substantial rights and clearly defined obligations for foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong, I added an ‘I blog for Human Rights’ button to the sidebar at the right. My intention was to identify the rights I’m concerned about within their proper context, and not as purely local issues.

Human rights tend to attract romantic notions about grand errors in the progress of civilisation. But more specifically they’re rights that governments tend to trample on, and their recognition helps to limit state action. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes human rights as “international norms that help to protect all people everywhere from severe political, legal, and social abuses”. The key word here is ‘severe’, and the article goes on to argue against “rights inflation”, or the inclusion of less than urgent, universal problems as human rights.

Human right, by riacale, with Creative Commons licenceThe main difficulty with this definition, and one that the writer grapples with, is that situations one person considers urgent, severe or somehow reflecting a universal problem might not be the same those that trouble another person. Some abuses are obvious – torture can do no good, and neither can slavery. But what about migrant worker wage inequality and contracts that insist a domestic helper in Hong Kong must live with her employer? Are they abusive, and are they severe enough to be considered restrictions on human rights?

Yes they are, for the very simple reason that they violate internationally recognised agreements on the sort of rights that everyone should have.

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Rights and Obligations

10 May 2008

More Thoughts on Domestic Helpers in Hong Kong

Don't Speak, by Birta Rán, with Creative Commons licenceSometimes the most difficult problems are the least often mentioned. They play on minds but escape public attention because they’re too complex to grasp sufficiently. In a recent post on myopic perceptions of poverty I outlined some of the wage constraints placed on domestic helpers in Hong Kong. In other countries they’d be called the working poor – here they’re expected to be happy. But the problem runs deeper than money alone, with a lack of employee rights and an insufficient understanding of employer obligations marring Hong Kong’s participation in the international market for migrant labour.

The litany of abuses against domestic helpers in this city is long, with much of the evidence anecdotal and not entirely reliable. But in my building alone there are two cases of continual underpayment and one recent case of termination without any reason given. The employer not only failed to tell the helper why she was sacked, but also left the appropriate section blank on the termination notice submitted to the Immigration Department. When asked for a reference from an employment agency, the employer replied “no comment”.

James Rice, local academic and author of Take Your Rights Seriously, a legal handbook for domestic helpers, tells me that this practice is both common and within the law. Employers only need to give sufficient notice, with no reason for termination necessary.

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