Under threat: displaced Iraqi Christians take refuge in the garden of Saint Joseph church on the outskirts of Erbil, 12 August. Photo: Getty
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With the beheading of James Foley by Islamic State, a red line has been crossed at last

Channel 4 News’s foreign affairs correspondent Jonathan Rugman on a dramatic week spent in northern Iraq.

My hotel lobby in Erbil plays unwanted muzak while I sit sipping coffee, reflecting that the gun-toting crazies of Islamic State are a mere half-hour’s drive away. Should the jihadists ever conquer this Kurdish city, I guess the muzak would cease and the subsequent round of beheadings would probably include mine.

The journalist James Foley disappeared near the Syrian town of Taftanaz in Nov­ember 2012. I was in the same town a few months earlier, welcome (or so I thought) to report on the uprising against Bashar al-Assad. Now, James has been executed and I cannot understand what changed in the hearts and minds of some of those who took us in and helped us. After not one but a multitude of jihadist atrocities too many, a red line has been crossed at last.

Britain and the US veered from over-intervening in Iraq to neglecting it. Now, there’s the inevitable talk of “mission creep” and being “sucked in” but at least we are trying to find a middle way: surveillance, arming the Kurds, air strikes, using special forces for whom discretion is the better part of valour. By the end of my week, I must allow an hour to reach the “Islamic caliphate” front line – maybe more during Kurdistan’s rush-hour traffic. This military reversal has been prompted in part by the tragic fate of a religious minority that most of us had never even heard of a fortnight earlier.

Intervention came too late for 100,000 Assyrian Christians abandoning some of Christendom’s earliest outposts. And too late for the vast majority of Yazidis – but at least their exodus caught the world’s attention. My reporting rarely changes anything but maybe the first pictures broadcast on Channel 4 News of desperate Yazidi refugees trapped on Mount Sinjar helped prick the conscience of reluctant policymakers. Anyway, that’s what I like to think.

Into the mountains

Major General Majid Ahmed Saadi was the Iraqi helicopter pilot who made it possible. We were staying at the same hotel and my producer, Sarah, spotted him coming out of his room in his flying suit. We drank tea and smoked with him and struck a deal: he would take us up the mountain the next morning. The Iraqi army had just four ancient Russian Mi-17 choppers to rescue the Yazidis – and often they were being diverted to fire rockets at jihadists instead. On the way up to Sinjar, I tried amusing myself by dreaming up a T-shirt slogan for our crew: “Our country got invaded by the US and Britain – and all we got were these Russian helicopters, which we had already.”

Our pilot warned us that the Yazidis might try to storm the helicopter and so it proved: a desperate crush, bodies clambering over one another and people screaming. I found myself dragging dehydrated children towards the back. One of the Iraqi machine-gunners kicked refugees away so he could shut the door. Then, when we thought it was all over and our cargo of human misery was airborne, the gunner started firing because jihadists were shooting at us from below.

Weight of desperation

The next day, I returned to the airbase to find Alissa Rubin of the New York Times in the helicopter, sitting where I had sat. Major General Majid was at the door, making his final checks. “Maybe it is too heavy to take off,” he said to me gravely. That afternoon, we heard that the helicopter had crashed and our pilot was dead. Alissa was among the injured. The major general had taken on more refugees than he could carry and had tried to plunge the helicopter down the mountain slope until he could gain lift for take-off. Later, we were told that two Yazidi refugee children had died in hospital.

Hope for Iraq

My camerawoman, Philippa, has an 11-month-old baby at home and I have three children. So what were we to make of our near miss? “It is good news! God has decided it is not your time,” Hala Jaber of the Sunday Times tells me later, giving me a mystical, Middle Eastern look. My other conclusion is, strangely, one of hope for Iraq’s future: the major general was an Arab from Basra on a courageous mission to save his fellow Iraqis on the remote fringes of Kurdistan when nobody else would.

Scattered to the winds

Father John Tarachee is the man I am happiest to see all week. I first met him two months ago outside his church in Bartella, 13 miles east of Mosul, where he made the bold claim that if jihadists invaded and executed him, his place in paradise was assured. On 6 August, Islamic State arrived and Father John abandoned the prospect of paradise, preferring to flee for the Kurdish hills. Ours is an emotional reunion, though his village is empty and more than 2,000 Christian families have been scattered to the winds. “America said it would help us – but it is late,” he says sadly, showing me around a community centre hall packed with Christian refugees.

Among them is Mabel, who was born two days before jihadists overran Qaraqosh, Iraq’s biggest Christian city. Every family here wants a passport and a passage out, should it prove impossible to return home. A question bothers me: is the UK government, in its political correctness, so anxious not to be seen solely defending the rights of Iraq’s Christians that it will leave them here?

Homeward bound

By the time I am on the plane home, I have reduced a presenter on Fox News to tears with my tales of suffering Yazidis – tales undoubtedly helped by how photogenic these gentle mountain people are. Both the BBC and ITV claim to have found babies named “Hope” born on the mountain, while I’ve met a mother who had her infant suckle the milk of a mountain goat to survive. Now the inflight menu arrives and I try to put an exhausting week behind me and face a perplexing question: chicken or beef? 

Jonathan Rugman is a foreign affairs correspondent for “Channel 4 News”

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, What the Beatles did for Britain

Photo: Getty
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Britain cannot shirk its duty to defend Hong Kong from China's authoritarianism

Arrests of pro-democracy activists show China is breaching its commitments to the “one country, two systems” agreement.

When Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said in June that the Sino-British Joint Declaration no longer has any “practical significance”, shivers were sent down the spines of those who want democracy to flourish in Hong Kong.

“It is not at all binding for the central government's management over Hong Kong. The UK has no sovereignty, no power to rule and no power to supervise Hong Kong after the handover,” he said.

Going by the British government's failure to respond firmly to the jailing of Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow for standing up for democracy, it appears the UK agrees.

The Sino-British Joint Declaration, signed in 1984, was committed to the “one country, two systems” principle, making Hong Kong a Special Administrative Region of China but ensuring a range of freedoms, which future British governments would ensure were upheld.

China’s creeping influence over Hong Kong’s legal affairs and freedom of speech are not new. Earlier this year, Amnesty International said the human rights situation in Hong Kong was at its worst since the handover in 1997. That assessment followed the disappearance of five Hong Kong booksellers, later found to have been in the custody of the Chinese police, with one describing having been blindfolded and kept in a tiny cell. In other instances journalists have been attacked by police. 

But in Hong Kong, resistance is on display in familiar scenes on the streets. Tens of thousands of people have marched through the financial and legal hub in protest at the jailing of the three pro-democracy activists for their role in the Umbrella Revolution in 2014 – a fundamentally peaceful movement.

It was a moment where people came out to fight for universal suffrage, which I continue to support as key to safeguarding the island’s stability and prosperity (and something Hong Kong’s Basic Law secures by stating that the chief executive should be selected by “by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures”).

For showing courage in fighting for universal suffrage, Wong has already served 80 hours of community service and Law 120 hours. Chow received a three-week suspended prison sentence a year ago. Yet now Wong has been jailed for six months, Chow for seven months and Law for eight months.

Wong was even summoned again to court today for an ongoing contempt charge related to the 2014 "Occupy" pro-democracy protests.

Perhaps more importantly, Wong is now not eligible to stand for the legislative council for five years due to his six-month jail sentence, while Law, who was a member of the council, was removed from office.

This all comes after a 2016 order from Beijing for Hong Kong’s government to dismiss officials thought lacking in their allegiance to China, which led to six legislators being banned from holding office.

Many, including Hong Kong’s last Governor, Chris Patten, have suggested Wong, Law and Chow's sentences were a deliberate attempt to prevent them from taking on these legislative positions.

Patten added that he hopes friends of Hong Kong will speak out, having previously written the UK is “selling its honour” to secure trade deals with China, letting down pro-democracy activists who have been trying to fight to maintain freedoms that were guaranteed during the deal that ended over 100 years of British rule.

The prising open of the case by the Hong Kong government to push for tougher punishments reinforces concerns about Beijing’s willingness to interfere in Hong Kong’s democracy. As Amnesty International stated, seeking jail terms was a “vindictive attack” on freedom of expression.

China’s enthusiasm for subverting democracy has recently been on show in its attempts to censor Cambridge University Press (CUP), which initially complied with a Chinese request to block access to more than 300 articles from the China Quarterly, a leading China studies journal, including articles on Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Following public pressure CUP have now reversed their position.

But while freedoms granted under the Joint Declaration may have contributed to Hong Kong becoming fertile ground for those supportive of democracy and critical of China, it does not free the United Kingdom from its responsibility to uphold the “one country, two systems” principle, which promises extensive autonomy and freedoms to the island, except in the area of foreign relations and military defence.

Read more: The dream deferred by Chris Patten

The Joint Declaration is a legally binding treaty. It is registered with the UN and is still in force. As the UK is a co-signatory, it should be doing all it can to make sure it is upheld.

Yet, in late June one of Hong Kong’s most respected democracy activists Martin Lee described the British government as "just awful. I’m afraid I cannot find any kind words to say about that.”

It is not for either China or the UK to unilaterally decide the Joint Declaration is null and void. The people of Hong Kong understand that and are standing up for democracy in the face of adversity. Our Government has a duty to stand by them.

Catherine West is the Labour MP for Hornsey and Wood Green