International Democracy Day Brussels – a focus on Hong Kong activists

By Benedetta Zimone, AEJ Belgium intern 2023

The ninth edition of International Democracy Day (IDD) took place on the 14 and 15 September at the European Committee of the Regions in Brussels. This event is organised every year to commemorate International Democracy Day established by the United Nations in 2007. Every year the conference’s coordinators, which are mainly think tanks and advocacy organisations, choose the main subject to guide the whole discussion. 

For the 2023 edition, the topic was democratic unrest – a phenomenon which is currently affecting innumerable states across the globe. 

The event hosted several activists who had directly witnessed the democratic decline in their countries. All of them indicated how authoritarian regimes inadequately governed the regions from which they escaped. In particular, the activists were aiming to raise public awareness of what is happening in those countries that are witnessing a democratic backlash, such as Georgia, Syria, Hong Kong, and Pakistan. 

Among the various guests, there was the Hong Kong activist and politician Nathan Law, who led the famous Umbrella protest in 2014. He is the youngest legislator elected in Hong Kong.

Even if Hong Kong is considered one of the regions with the highest degree of political autonomy (under the “one country, two systems” principle), Nathan had to move to London where he started his exile life. He escaped after the enactment of the National Security Law imposed by the People’s Republic of China in 2020.

The ratification of this law has had a significant impact on Hong Kongers’ lives, cracking down on their rights to free press, free association, and free speech. 

During his speech on IDD, the charismatic young leader pointed out some critical and tragic facts that occurred after the enactment of the National Security Law three years ago.

He reported how several young students, including some of his friends and colleagues, were imprisoned “just for pushing for democracy.”

As Law argued, it is difficult to understand how to improve the catastrophic Chinese situation. “Courage, resilience, democracy and support” are the most important elements to take into account, he said.

Law also said that “freedom and democracy are our main cornerstones” as well as essential EU values. Drawing attention to the situation of other activists present in the room, he pointed out that all the people who are obliged to flee their homes for political persecution, economic pressures, or war have a common threat. This is why “people in power desire more power,” he said.

After the adoption of the Chinese National Security Law on Hong Kong, EU states raised concerns. However, EU countries back then agreed that EU sanctions on China would not solve the critical situation.

In the European Commission’s latest annual report on developments in Hong Kong, additional deteriorations of fundamental rights have been reported.

This comes amid prominent commercial links between the EU and Hong Kong. The EU is still the biggest foreign business community with over 1,600 firms. But the Head of the EU Office to Hong Kong Thomas Gnocchi recently said that the political atmosphere has a strong negative impact on businesses and people who are considering starting their business in Hong Kong.

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