Aviation And Democracy – The Hong Kong Protests

The words “aviation is a symbol of freedom around the world” resonate with the aviation community as, at its core, that is what aviation is. 

by Dr Ruwantissa Abeyratne
Writing from Montreal

“People shouldn't be afraid of their government. Governments should be afraid of their people.”
― Alan Moore, V for Vendetta

Asia Times of 8 August 2019 reported: “On July 26, about 15,000 protesters, many from the aviation sector, staged a sit-in at Hong Kong International Airport in a bid to win international support for the movement against the extradition bill. They also called for an independent inquiry into the alleged excessive use of force by police at recent anti-extradition bill protest”. The report went on to say that according to information widely circulated online, protest organizers have called for a “tourist reception by 10,000 protesters” at the Arrival Hall in Terminal 1 at the airport starting from 1pm on Friday the 9th August.

Protest in Hong Kong

The street protests, seemingly peaceful but with sporadic clashes between the Hong Kong Police and citizens who are protesting an extradition bill which has since been “withdrawn” by the Hong Kong executive arm of the State, have gone on for some time. The bill purported to give powers to the Hong Kong authorities to extradite alleged offenders to mainland China. The opposition to the bill was grounded on the fact that such legislation would empower the authorities to extradite persons to mainland China who were considered as posing a threat. The protesters are relentless in demanding that the bill be killed instead of being just withdrawn. They are also demanding universal suffrage – the right of Hong Kongers to elect leaders of their choice to the Hong Kong legislature without influence or interference from mainland China. Both these claims are grounded on the fact that the authorities are behaving in an anti democratic manner which is eroding the rights of the citizens who are subjects of a democratic system of government and justice system of Hong Kong.

Flight attendants joined the protesters at the arrivals hall of the airport when the protesters first “sat in”. The Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA) – the global body representing flight attendants – issued a communique on 25 July 2019 fully supporting the flight attendants: "Aviation is a symbol of freedom around the world. As aviation’s foremost ambassadors, Flight Attendants have a unique voice in our society and role in the promotion of our core values including freedom of movement and expression. Those values are threatened by Hong Kong’s Extradition Bill, and by the subsequent government crackdowns and prosecution of peaceful protestors. On Friday, July 26, Flight Attendants and aviation workers will protest at Hong Kong International Airport, Terminal One, to demand: Complete withdrawal of the Extradition Bill; retraction of the 'Riot' characterization of the June 12 protest; release and exoneration of the arrested protestors; formation of an independent Commission of Inquiry, and; immediate implementation of universal suffrage. AFA-CWA stands with our aviation sisters and brothers working through non-violent protest and direct action to stop regressive laws and move Hong Kong and every nation toward a just, equitable future."

On 5 August 2019 CNN reported that more than 2,300 aviation workers joined the strike, leading to the cancellation of 224 flights.

The words “aviation is a symbol of freedom around the world” resonate with the aviation community as, at its core, that is what aviation is. It connects the world and helps people move freely around the globe in friendship and understanding with one another and with nations of the world. The Preamble also says that it is desirable to avoid friction and to promote that cooperation between nations and peoples upon which the peace of the world depends.

This concept has been endorsed by the Chicago Convention of 1944 in its Preamble. In general terms, the Preamble to the Chicago Convention leaves no room for doubt that, being a post war instrument, its overall theme is on aviation and peace, which has its genesis in the Chicago Conference that led to the adoption of the Chicago Convention.

Aviation is not only the symbol of freedom, but it is also the symbol of solidarity. The essence of solidarity is enshrined in the notion of equality of opportunity – another phrase appearing in the Preamble of the Chicago Convention. In other words, the Preamble concludes that aviation should be conducted in a safe and orderly manner, soundly and economically and with equal opportunity for all involved. These are all basic principles of democracy. Democracy is freedom and solidarity embodied in a form of government in which the sovereign power resides in and is exercised by the whole body of citizens directly or indirectly through a system of representation. Put simply, the above definition means that democracy is a system where ordinary citizens have a meaningful and compelling role in the affairs of the State, including the formulation of policy and the development and implementation of legislation. Democracy is government for all - in equality and unity.

The abovementioned policy enunciated by the Chicago Convention promotes the protection of the social and economic rights of a person. These rights are not merely concerned with material well being and economic affluence, but covers in a broad sense all forms of human progress and a better quality of life. In this sense, the development brought about by an honest democracy would be measured by the peoples’ political and economic freedom and their equal enjoyment of the fruits of growth.

Glaring evidence of the fact that aviation is not merely the carriage of persons and goods by air from one point to another is reflected in the universal recognition of aviation as a personification of democratic principles. For example, in 1971, at the 15th Session of the Assembly of the International Civil Aviation Organization, member States adopted Resolution A15-7 (Condemnation of the Policies of Apartheid and Racial Discrimination of South Africa). The Assembly Resolution went on to say inter alia: “bearing in mind that the apartheid policies constitute a permanent source of conflict between the nations and peoples of the world; and recognizing, furthermore, that the policies of apartheid and racial discrimination are a flagrant violation of the principles enshrined in the Preamble to the Chicago Convention…The Assembly urges South Africa to comply with the aims and objectives of the Chicago Convention”.

Two years later, the ICAO Assembly, at its 19th (Extraordinary) Session (New York, 27 February–2 March 1973) adopted Resolution A19-1 which condemned Israeli action which resulted in the loss of 108 lives.

Evaluating the quality of governance of a democratically elected regime should not only be a preoccupation of the public sector but should also constitute a necessary prerogative of the people being governed. Overall public interest in good governance is now a common feature in the modern state and is not restricted to the academics and practitioners who bore the burden of evaluating governance in the past. The increasing concern and interest in good governance may be attributed to the public being more educated and aware than before, which is now popularly known as “civic literacy”, coupled with the proliferation of complex issues that have emerged with globalization and an international awareness that has spread to national boundaries.

This is where aviation and democracy meet.

Dr. Abeyratne is the author of War and Peace: The Aviation Perspective.