Biden recognizes Armenian genocide

“The American people honor all those Armenians who perished in the genocide,” the president said in a statement.

By BENJAMIN DIN, as posted on POLITICO on April 24, 2021

President Joe Biden on Saturday recognized the Armenian genocide, fulfilling a campaign promise and taking a step that his recent predecessors have avoided while in office.

Biden’s designation, which coincided with Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, signals the president’s desire to prioritize human rights despite potential fallout in the U.S. relationship with Turkey. It comes 106 years after the beginning of the mass deportation of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire, which led to the deaths of up to 1.5 million people.

“The American people honor all those Armenians who perished in the genocide,” Biden said in a statement Saturday.

“Over the decades Armenian immigrants have enriched the United States in countless ways, but they have never forgotten the tragic history that brought so many of their ancestors to our shores. We honor their story. We see that pain. We affirm the history. We do this not to cast blame but to ensure that what happened is never repeated,” he added.

The United States is now part of a group of 30 countries that have recognized the Armenian genocide, according to the Armenian National Institute. Although Turkey acknowledges the “tragic experience” of Armenians, it maintains the number of those who died between 1915 and 1923 is inflated and denies the characterization of the events as genocide.

The largely symbolic declaration followed a Friday phone call between Biden and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In readouts of their first call, neither the White House nor Ankara said if Biden directly addressed his plan to recognize the Armenian genocide. Biden however did tell Erdogan that he intended to recognize the genocide, the Associated Press reported, citing a person familiar with the conversation.

For more than a century the U.S. has not formally recognized the killing of more than a million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire during WWI as genocide. Over the weekend, that changed.

Erdogan has been adamant in not referring to the World War I-era events as genocide, and in 2019, Erdogan spokesperson Fahrettin Altun said any such recognition would “endanger the future of [U.S.-Turkish] bilateral relations.” In 2014, the Turkish president called the events “inhumane.”

Turkey’s foreign ministry quickly denounced Biden’s statement Saturday, saying it doesn’t have “a scholarly or legal basis.”

“The US President’s statement will not yield any results other than polarizing the nations and hindering peace and stability in our region,” the country’s foreign ministry said in a statement.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan hailed the move, writing in a letter to Biden that his “principled position … is a powerful step towards the restoration of truth and historical justice, invaluable support to the descendants of the victims of the Armenian genocide.”

Over decades, lawmakers in Congress have been willing to recognize the genocide but sitting presidents historically have not. In a statement to mark the day of remembrance last year, Biden said he was “proud” of his role in the Senate to recognize the Armenian genocide and his endorsement of 2019 resolutions in both chambers of Congress that did the same.

In recent weeks, lawmakers have been increasingly vocal about their desire for Biden to take this step. On Wednesday, more than 100 representatives called on Biden to “clearly and directly recognize the Armenian Genocide.” Last month, 38 senators signed on to a letter that also urged Biden to classify the events as genocide.

Prominent Democrats backed Biden’s decision Saturday, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).

“Our hearts are full of joy that President Biden has taken the historic step of joining Congress with formal recognition on Armenian Genocide Day,” Pelosi said in a statement Saturday. “History teaches us that if we ignore its darkest chapters, we are destined to witness the horrors of the past be repeated.”

Ocasio-Cortez called the move “long overdue” in a tweet Saturday and said that she hopes it will bring peace to people affected by it.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) thanked Biden on Twitter for “speaking truth to power.”

“He has cast aside decades of shameful silence and half-truths, and the broken promises of so many of his predecessors, and spoken truth to power,” Schiff said in a statement.

Past sitting U.S. presidents have danced around the issue, not wanting to disturb relations between the NATO allies.

As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama pledged to recognize the Armenian genocide if elected, although his administration ultimately did not do so — a decision his ambassador to the U.N. ultimately expressed remorse for in 2018.

President Donald Trump declined to classify the Armenian genocide as such, despite both chambers of Congress overwhelmingly passing resolutions to do so in 2019. Instead, Trump called it “one of the worst mass atrocities of the 20th century.”

In 1981, President Ronald Reagan referenced “the genocide of the Armenians” in a statement that remembered victims of the Holocaust.

Ben Leonard contributed to this report.

2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices


The annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices – the Human Rights Reports – cover internationally recognized individual, civil, political, and worker rights, as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international agreements. The U.S. Department of State submits reports on all countries receiving assistance and all United Nations member states to the U.S. Congress in accordance with the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 and the Trade Act of 1974.


Announcement: Upcoming Addendum

Later this year, the Department of State will release an addendum to each 2020 country report that expands the subsection on women in Section 6, entitled “Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons,” to include a broader range of issues related to reproductive rights.  The addendum will cover maternal health issues such as maternal mortality, government policy adversely affecting access to contraception, access to skilled healthcare during pregnancy and childbirth, access to emergency healthcare, and discrimination against women in accessing sexual and reproductive health care, including for sexually transmitted infections.  These topics were included in previous Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, and they will be included again in future years.

I am honored to release the 45th annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices and to reaffirm the United States’ commitment to placing human rights at the center of our foreign policy.  The cause of human rights, freedom, and dignity is close to the American heart.  As President Biden emphasized, “We must start with diplomacy rooted in America’s most cherished democratic values: defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity.”  Transparency and accountability are integral to this process.  By documenting the status of human rights around the world each year, the U.S. Department of State provides objective and comprehensive information to Congress, civil society, academics, activists, and people everywhere – all of whom have roles to play in promoting human rights and accountability for rights abuses and violations.

The 2020 report reflects the unique challenges that nations had to confront as the COVID-19 virus spread throughout the world.  The pandemic impacted not only individuals’ health, but their abilities to safely enjoy their human rights and fundamental freedoms.  Some governments used the crisis as a pretext to restrict rights and consolidate authoritarian rule.  Other governments relied on democratic values and processes, including a free press, transparency, and accountability, to inform and protect their citizens.  Women and children faced heightened risk as the prevalence of gender-based and domestic violence increased due to lockdowns and the loss of traditional social protections.  Other marginalized populations, including older persons, persons with disabilities, and LGBTQI+ persons, experienced particular vulnerability.

Human rights are interdependent, and the deprivation of one right can cause the broader fabric of a society to fray.  Despite potential risks to their health or threats of arrest or other repercussions, people around the world demanded that governments respect their human rights and inherent dignity.  From Hong Kong to Belarus, from Nigeria to Venezuela, people assembled in the streets.  They called for governmental protection of their human rights and fundamental freedoms, safeguards for free and fair elections, and an end to discrimination.

Too many people continued to suffer under brutal conditions in 2020.  In China, government authorities committed genocide against Uyghurs, who are predominantly Muslim, and crimes against humanity including imprisonment, torture, enforced sterilization, and persecution against Uyghurs and members of other religious and ethnic minority groups.  Assad’s atrocities against the people of Syria continued unabated, and this year marks ten years of their struggles to live in dignity and freedom.  The war in Yemen has driven millions to extreme humanitarian need, preventing them from exercising many of their basic rights.  The Russian government has targeted political dissidents and peaceful protestors, while official corruption remained rampant.  The corruption of Nicolas Maduro increased the dire humanitarian crisis of the Venezuelan people.

In Nicaragua, the corrupt Ortega regime passed increasingly repressive laws that limit severely the ability of opposition political groups, civil society, and independent media to operate.  Meanwhile in Cuba, government restrictions continued to suppress the freedoms of expression, association, religion or belief, and movement.  State-sanctioned violence in Zimbabwe against civil society activists, labor leaders, and opposition members continued a culture of impunity, and LGBTQI+ persons continued to be vulnerable to violence, discrimination, and harassment due to criminalization and stigma associated with same-sex sexual conduct.  In Turkmenistan, citizens criticizing the government faced possible arrest for treason, and the whereabouts of more than 100 political prisoners remain unknown.

These and other ongoing rights abuses cause untold damage well beyond the borders of any single country; unchecked human rights abuses anywhere can contribute to a sense of impunity everywhere. That is precisely why this Administration has placed human rights front and center in its foreign policy.    Recognizing that there is work to be done at home, we are also striving to live up to our highest ideals and principles and are committed to working toward a fairer and more just society in the United States.  We all have work to do, and we must use every tool available to foster a more peaceful and just world.

Antony J. Blinken
Secretary of State

Overview and Acknowledgements


This report is submitted to the Congress by the Department of State pursuant to Sections 116(d) and 502B(b) of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961.  19 U.S.C. § 2464, 2467 also require that U.S. foreign and trade policy take into account countries’ human rights and worker rights performance and that country reports be submitted to the Congress on an annual basis.

This report includes documents on several countries that do not fall into the categories established by these statutes and thus are not covered by the congressional requirement.

The report addresses situations and events in calendar year 2020 only.

The Department of State prepared this report using information from U.S. embassies and consulates abroad, foreign government officials, nongovernmental and international organizations, jurists and legal experts, journalists, academics, labor activists, and published reports.  U.S. diplomatic missions abroad prepared the initial drafts of the individual country reports.

Once the initial drafts of the individual country reports were completed by U.S. missions abroad, the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL), in cooperation with other Department of State offices with the relevant country and regional expertise, reviewed and edited the reports, drawing on its own sources of information as well as of the Department of Labor.  Bureau officers also consulted experts in the Department of State and elsewhere on worker rights, refugee issues, police and security issues, women’s issues, and legal matters, among many others.  The guiding principles were that all information be reported objectively, thoroughly, and fairly.  DRL, working with other Department offices as necessary, also ensured that all reports followed the same methodology and conformed to standard format and structure.


Coordinator of Human Rights Reports/Editor in Chief:  Stephen Eisenbraun

Senior Advisor:  Marc Susser

Senior Editors:  Wendall Albright, Jonathan Bemis, Jillian Burns, Doug Kramer, Stephen Eisenbraun, Jerome L. Hoganson, Victor J. Huser, Lawrence Lesser, David Morris, Dan Vernon, Joseph Dean Yap.

Editors:  Muzna Abbas, Maureen Ahmed, Paula Albertson, Wendell Albright, Asim Ali, , Mary Angelini, Paul Baldwin, John Barone, Jonathan Bemis, Brian Campbell, Alexandra Cantone, Kelsey Carido, Dana Castagna, Ken Chern, Jessica Chesbro, Michael Cocciolone, Ann Cody, Mauricio Cortes, Stephen Dreyer, Christina Droggitis, Sandra Dupuy, Mort Dworken, Sara Epstein, Janie Esteva, Gabriella Fernandes,  Ryan Fioresi, Sheridan Gardner, Karen Gilbride, Sarah Givens, John Gorkowski, David Guinn, Charles Gurney, Ian Harrison, Matt Hickey, Anya Howko-Johnson, Victor Huser, Rachael-Therese Joubert-Lin, Richard Kaminski, Stephen Kaufman, Orly Keiner, Charles Kellett, Esther Kim, Douglas Kramer, Lawrence Lesser, Kevin Lewis, Maureen Limon, Vidya Mani, Sarah McGonagle, Veronica McIntire, Geneve Menscher, Hannah Meropol, Stephen Moody, Greta Morris, Thomas Opstal, Kurt Pearson, Steven Pierce, Samantha Powell, Gerald Quattro,  Lauren Ravekes, Ereni Roess, Emily Rose, Hilary Rosenthal, Stephanie Sandbeck, James Sayre, Stephanie Schmid, Daniel Schneider, Austin Schott, Harrison Schreiber, Samantha Schwartz, Thomas Selinger, Corena Sharp, Adam Sheffler, Lisa Sherman, Wendy Silverman, Kristen Smart, Rachel Spring, Greg Staff, Jennifer Stein, Brandon Strassberg, Zackary Suhr, Sarah Swatzburg, Leslie Taylor, Dennis Dean Tidwell, Dania Torres, Ambar Valles, Brooke Van Slyke, C. Eduardo Vargas, Dan Vernon, Pilar Velasquez, David G. Wagner, Rachel Waldstein, Micah Watson, Tracy Watson, Alexander Werman, Sonya Weston, Thomas Whitney, John Whittlesey, Megan Wong, Joseph Dean Yap.

Senior Technical Editor: Janine Czarnecki.

Technical Editors:  Jessica Adams, Dhuha Baig, Ryan Jolley.

Technical Coordinator:  Geoffrey Palcher

Rollout Preparation:  Jessica Adams, Dhuha Baig, Ryan Burris, Karlygash Faillace, Carol Finerty, Caitlin Hawes, Stacy MacTaggert, Eunice Mooney, Nicholas Murphy, Lauren Pagan.

Country Reports


AngolaCôte d’IvoireGuineaMozambiqueSouth Africa
BeninDemocratic Republic of the CongoGuinea-BissauNamibiaSomalia
BotswanaDjiboutiKenyaNigerSouth Sudan
Burkina FasoEquatorial GuineaLesothoNigeriaSudan
BurundiEritreaLiberiaRepublic of the CongoTanzania
Cabo VerdeEswatiniMadagascarRwandaTogo
CameroonEthiopiaMalawiSão Tomé and PríncipeUganda
Central African RepublicGabonMaliSenegalZambia
ComorosGhanaMauritiusSierra Leone


BruneiKiribatiNew ZealandSolomon IslandsTuvalu
BurmaLaosNorth KoreaSouth KoreaVanuatu
CambodiaMalaysiaPalauSouth KoreaVietnam
China (Includes Hong Kong, Macau, and Tibet)Marshall IslandsPapua New GuineaTaiwan


AndorraCzech RepublicIrelandMontenegroSlovakia
AustriaEstoniaKosovoNorth MacedoniaSpain
Bosnia and HerzegovinaGermanyLuxembourgRomaniaUkraine
BulgariaGreeceMaltaRussiaUnited Kingdom
CroatiaHungaryMoldovaSan Marino


AlgeriaIraqLebanonQatarUnited Arab Emirates
BahrainIsrael, West Bank and GazaLibyaSaudi ArabiaYemen


AfghanistanIndiaMaldivesSri LankaUzbekistan


Antigua and BarbudaCanadaEcuadorJamaicaSaint Lucia
ArgentinaChileEl SalvadorMexicoSaint Vincent and the Grenadines
BarbadosCosta RicaGuatemalaPanamaTrinidad and Tobago
BrazilDominican RepublicHondurasSaint Kitts and Nevis

When Genocide is Caught on Film

From the New York Times Book Review by Susie Linfield

A Family, a Photograph, a Holocaust Massacre Revealed
By Wendy Lower

“What does one do upon discovering a photograph that documents a murder?” Wendy Lower asks in her new book, “The Ravine.” Lower, a historian of the Holocaust who has worked with Nazi hunters, ponders a photograph, taken in October 1941, in the once thriving, now desolate Ukrainian town of Miropol. It shows several men — Ukrainians and Germans — shooting a woman who, bent over, holds the hand of a small, barefoot boy just before they tumble into a death pit. (The boy would be buried alive, not shot, since Nazi protocol forbade wasting bullets on Jewish children.) Smoke from the gun blasts obscures the face of the woman, who wears a polka-dot housedress; later, on closer inspection, Lower will discover another child nestled in the woman’s lap. The photograph reveals the “Holocaust by bullets” in Ukraine, where more than one million Jews were murdered not in terrifying death camps but in prosaic “fields, swamps and ravines.” The Jews’ tormentors were, very often, their lifelong Ukrainian neighbors.

The scene was not unusual; neither was the photograph. During the war, German soldiers took troves of photographs — perhaps hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions — some of which memorialized, indeed celebrated, their cruelties, tortures and crimes. Nazi authorities forbade these unofficial images, but to little avail; they circulated widely to friends and families back home. These celebrations of sadism — which shake our ideas about an innate human capacity for either shame or guilt — are sometimes referred to as “trophy photos,” though I think “atrocity selfies” is a better term. (Lower claims that, in showing the actual moment of death, the Miropol photograph is rare, though there is no way that she — or anyone else — could know this: For obvious reasons, many of these amateur photographs have never surfaced.)

By tracing the identities of the figures in a photograph documenting the murder of Jews in Ukraine, Wendy Lower hopes to reveal the networks of complicity that made the Holocaust possible.
By tracing the identities of the figures in a photograph documenting the murder of Jews in Ukraine, Wendy Lower hopes to reveal the networks of complicity that made the Holocaust possible.
Photo Credit…Jonathan Petropoulos

Lower wants to do several things with this image. She hopes to discover who, exactly, the Jewish victims were: to say their names. Though she is an admirably dogged researcher — she uses, among other sources, live and videotaped witness testimonies, legal documents and grave excavations — in this she fails; their names are lost to history.

She also hopes to recreate the details of that day in Miropol and thus reveal the networks of complicity that made the Holocaust possible. Here, she succeeds with a vengeance: Her chapter “The Aktion” is devastating. Finally, she wants to expose the killers.

Knowing how an event occurred removes it from the realm of abstraction — and genocide has, unfortunately, become an almost abstract term. Photographs are particularly good at piercing haziness, since they often capture individuals taking action, not so-called cogs in a machine. As the historian Jan Tomasz Gross wrote in “Golden Harvest” (2012), his own book about a Holocaust image, photographs “remind us most directly of human agency in what otherwise we would know only as a numerical phenomenon.”

Lower shows that it takes a lot of people to kill a lot of people. There are the Ukrainian teenage girls forced to dig the mass graves; the Nazi customs guards (including volunteers) and Ukrainian policemen who rounded up the Jews and forced them to the death site; the Ukrainian neighbors who plundered their homes and “assaulted them — throwing stones and bottles.” Then there are the Ukrainian militia who, “armed with clubs, tools and Russian rifles, chased Jews, bludgeoning some to death. … They chased young Jewish women, ripped off their clothes and raped them.”

The town rang out — who could miss this? — with gunshots, “yelling, screaming and howling.” This was not the bureaucratic killing many associate with the Holocaust. This was mass murder at its most intimate: The Ukrainians “taunted the victims by name. … The victims were known to them from the dentist’s office, the cobbler’s shop, the soda fountain and the collective farm. They grabbed small children and babies by the legs and smashed their heads against the trees.”

There is a vociferous debate among historians and photography critics about whether “perpetrator photographs,” especially from the Nazi era, should be viewed. Some argue that they revictimize the victims. Lower, rightly, disputes this, though in a sparse and not especially illuminating way. Yet her book is a refutation of those who urge us not to look. Indeed, the big surprise of “The Ravine” is the identity of the Miropol image’s photographer: a Slovakian soldier named Lubomir Skrovina. He took the photograph with the full knowledge of his German superiors, but he did not take it in service to their aims. In fact, Skrovina was, or at least became, a member of the Resistance. He smuggled atrocity images to his wife back home as possible material for anti-Nazi forces; wrangled out of further military duty; hid Jews in his home and helped some escape; and joined the antifascist Slovakian uprising of 1944. Lower describes Skrovina’s photograph as “an expression of defiance.”

Though the Jews in the photograph remained anonymous, the names of their killers were known. West German authorities opened an inquiry in 1969, then quickly dropped it. But a Soviet K.G.B. major named Mikola Makareyvych was more determined. In 1986, his investigation yielded convictions for three of the Ukrainians in the photograph. Two were executed, one sentenced to prison. I oppose the death penalty. But I read this chapter of Lower’s book — entitled “Justice” — with deep and unshakable satisfaction.

Susie Linfield is the author of “The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence” and “The Lions’ Den: Zionism and the Left From Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky.”

Statement on Nagorno-Karabakh

The Mgrublian Center condemns the violence against civilians in the Nagorno-Karabakh (Republic of Artsakh) region.  Heavily comprised of Armenians since the 8th century BC, Nagorno-Karabakh lies within a mountainous region of Azerbaijan.  While conflict is not new to this area, there has been a marked increase in the frequency and severity of violence since the summer of 2020, amplified by not only Azerbaijani forces but with support from neighboring Turkey and mercenaries transported from Syria.  The risk to civilian lives and to peace in the region is grave.  The Mgrublian Center calls for humanitarian assistance to those affected in the region, among them Armenian women and children, and for an end to the war crimes being committed there.

See below for additional resources on the current situation and the historical roots of this conflict.

The History Behind the Violence in Nagorno-Karabakh, Anoush Baghdassarian, CMC ‘17

Turkey’s Alarming Regional Intervention Continues to Affect Minority Communities with Impunity, This Time in Azerbaijan, Anoush Baghdassarian (CMC ’17) and Sherin Zadah (CMC ’17)

Turkey Leads New Atrocities Against Armenians, Raffi Hovannisian, first Foreign Minister to Armenia

UN chief condemns continuing escalation of violence in Nagorno-Karabakh, United Nations News

Joint Statement Calling for a Ceasefire in Naborno-Karabakh, U.S. Department of State, the Russian Federation, and the Republic of France

Nagorno-Karabakh: Declaration by the High Representative on Behalf of the European Union, Council of the European Union

2020-21 Research Fellowships – Call for Applications!

The Mgrublian Center for Human Rights is currently accepting applications for the 7th annual Human Rights Student Research Fellowship Program.

Research fellows work closely with a faculty advisor on a year-long (2020-21 academic year) project related to the Holocaust, human rights, or genocide studies.   Fellows will be provided with access to the Center’s professional networks, digital library and other resources.   Each fellowship recipient will receive a $500 stipend to be used toward research materials and/or field research expenses.  Seniors working on relevant honors theses are encouraged to apply.  Past fellowship projects can be found on our website.

Application process: Submit your research proposal, resume, and transcript via our website.

Application deadline: Friday, September 25th

Questions?  Contact Kirsti Zitar,

In Memoriam: Dr. Eva Fleischner, Holocaust Survivor and Founding Advisory Board Member

Dr. Eva Fleischner, a loyal and distinguished member of the Mgrublian Center’s founding advisory board, died in Claremont on July 6, 2020, one day before her 95th birthday.

Born in Vienna in 1925 to a Jewish father and Catholic mother, Fleischner fled the Nazis to England and eventually settled in the United States in 1943. She would go on to become a well-known scholar of Jewish-Christian relations, first attending Radcliffe College where she graduated magna cum laude in 1946, then earning her doctorate at Marquette University with a dissertation on “The Impact of the Holocaust on German Christian Theology since 1945.” She taught religion and philosophy at Montclair State University (1972–1991).

Fleischner published with distinction on topics such as teaching the Shoah, women who rescued Jews during the Holocaust, and relations between Christians and Jews. Her publications include “‘Who Am I?’ The Struggle for Religious Identity of Jewish Children Hidden by Christians during the Shoah,” a chapter in Gray Zones: Ambiguity and Compromise in the Holocaust and Its Aftermath, the 2005 volume based on the Center’s first international conference, February 5–7, 2004.

In 1999–2000,   Fleischner was one of six Catholic and Jewish scholars—including Gerald Fogarty, Michael Marrus, John Morley, Bernard Suchecky, and Robert Wistrich—who served on the International Catholic-Jewish Historical Commission, which examined and reported about  the available records on Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust. The Commission’s work laid early groundwork for the fuller 2020 opening of the Vatican archive’s files on Pius XII’s wartime actions.  Fleischner generously donated to the Center her copies of the documents supplied to the Commission by the Vatican.  They are housed in the Center’s Roth Library.

Atrocity Prevention Simulation

Join the Mgrublian, Keck, and Salvatori Centers on Friday, March 6th for a one-day Atrocity Prevention Simulation. Work with expert practitioners to devise policies and strategies to de-escalate an international atrocity situation in “real-time”. RSVP now to secure your spot! Food and beverage provided. Open to all 5C students.

OPINION: Hong Kong police aren’t just using force. They’re using unnecessary violence

Published November 21, 2019 in The Student Life by Anna Choi (POM ’23), Mgrublian Center Research Fellow.

Miles away in a university not unlike ours, police are laying siege to students fighting for democracy and justice. Miles away in a city not unlike ours, civilians on the street lambaste the policemen they once trusted. Miles away, people not unlike us are struggling for the basic right to vote and freedom from arbitrary arrest.

These are the Hong Kongers who have staged major demonstrations since June 2019, who were galvanized by the proposition of a bill that would allow extradition of detained Hong Kong residents to China, according to The New York Times. Protesters, the majority of them peaceful, have united under their five major demands, according to CNN

Currently, the most prominent demand is for an independent investigation into police brutality, as their anti-riot and arrest methods grow more and more violent each day. At the time of writing, police have laid siege to the prestigious Hong Kong Polytechnic University for five days, after protesters used the institute as a base from which to occupy a major tunnel of the city, according to Vice

The Hong Kong police’s water cannons spray, with great force, unknown blue liquid that causes “severe skin irritation”; Greenpeace has questioned police claims that the liquid is “harmless,” according to Hong Kong Free Press. While police demand protesters leave PolyU, those attempting to escape the “war zone” are either beaten back by tear gas or immediately arrested, according to The Guardian.

More than 10,000 rounds of tear gas have been deployed by the police since protests began in June, according to the South China Morning Post. Meanwhile, local medical groups have raised concerns of dioxins released by tear gas canisters, especially after a front-line reporter was diagnosed with chloracne, according to HKFP.

The protestors haven’t been entirely peaceful either. Despite police threats of using live ammunition if protesters continued to wield “lethal weapons” against them, some protesters continue to hurtle Molotov cocktails and shoot arrows, according to NPR.

But that’s not to say that both sides deserve equal blame. We need to be careful not to claim “neutrality” and dismiss and oversimplify this situation as “violence on both sides.” Civilians and police have different roles. 

When civilians commit a crime, they are arrested and disciplined under the law. By contrast,  when Hong Kong policemen commit a crime, they don’t face consequences for their actions; experts say the Independent Police Complaints Council is unable to carry out its sole duty — investigate the police — despite Chief Executive of Hong Kong Carrie Lam’s insistence to the contrary, according to TIME

Further, protesters do not have the weapons police have. Protesters do not have the protective gear police have.

Protesters do not have the power to arrest. Protesters do not get paid to put their lives on the line. Protesters did not receive the professional training police received (paid for by civilians) to specifically not get emotional and not abuse their power.

Those suspected of unlawful assembly do not deserve to be beaten until they have brain hemorrhages, as The Telegraph reported happened to one student. This is not “use of force.” This is violence.

Regrettably, Hong Kong police do not believe in the presumption of innocence, let alone the freedom from violence and torture; this much is blatant in the damning investigation reports by Amnesty International.

While the police have the right and duty to use force, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, “all police action shall respect the principles of legality, necessity, non-discrimination, proportionality and humanity.”

In no circumstance is kneeling on the neck of an already-subdued person an act of “necessity”; and pepper spraying a detainee’s gaping facial wounds is outright torture, as seen in a NYT video of the protests. These acts, among many others, are an atrocious violation of human rights. 

When protesters become violent, police action should be proportional to that of protesters. Yet, in response to an 18-year-old swinging a metal rod, a Hong Kong policeman shot him in the chest at point-blank range, despite the availability of non-lethal weapons like pepper spray and rubber bullets available, according to an analysis by the NYT. The policeman was wearing a bulletproof vest; the protester had a plastic board as a “shield.”

We need to be careful not to mislabel police brutality as “use of force,” for this creates a facade of legality to disguise their violence. Often, outsiders viewing an unfamiliar event subconsciously defer to those in power, and such wording dangerously strengthens the police’s legitimacy, in spite of their unlawful actions.

So why, as a NYT article asks, have Hong Kong police fallen from “Asia’s finest” to unruly behavior? I believe there are two main causes. 

First, police now operate with full anonymity. From June 2019 when the protests began, riot police have hidden their identity numbers, according to SCMP. In October, The Nation criticized Hong Kong police for no longer carrying their warrant cards and often wearing masks so civilians are unable to identify and file complaints against them. 

Second, Lam has repeatedly reassured policemen that they are using “appropriate force of weapon,” according to CNN, and will not be investigated for misconduct, according to SCMP

Anticipating clashes with protesters on Chinese National Day, police officials loosened the guidelines on the amount of force officers should use right before the date, according to Reuters, leading to a record level of firearm deployment, with about 1,400 rounds of tear gas, 900 rubber bullets and six live rounds fired. 

This lack of repercussions for misconduct and condoning of further violence demonstrate executive leaders’ aiding and abetting of police brutality.

Depressing as these events are, and uncertain as the future is, we each have the moral responsibility as global citizens to stand on the side of justice. 

Apart from reading articles to stay updated, I encourage you to watch live videos of the protests (search: “Apple Daily live” on YouTube), and to discuss Hong Kong’s situation with your peers, colleagues, friends or with your family during Thanksgiving. 

Hong Kong’s protests are joining with movements around the world, from Chile, to Lebanon, to Catalonia, where activists drew inspiration from Hong Kong’s protest tactics. What links can you draw between Hong Kong’s story and yours?

Miles away, weary Hong Kongers raise signs reading “SAVE US.” The least we can do is to help spread their message.

Anna Choi PO ’23 is a guest writer who was born and raised in Hong Kong. She’s the president of the Hong Kong Political Society, a recently founded activism group, and hopes to give back to the Hong Kong community from which she’s greatly benefitted.