Hong Kong Human Rights Icon Albert Ho Battles On
Albert Ho’s law firm in Hong Kong is exactly what you’d expect. Halfway up a skyscraper, it’s noisy and busy and a little chaotic, full of young, enthusiastic lawyers confronting a mountain of cases in the wake of the crackdown on pro-democracy protestors over the last eighteen months.
I visited Ho last year after a gang of thugs had attacked him, beating him with iron bars. Ho sat behind boxes of files on his desk, which were also on side tables and the floor. We chatted about the fight for democracy he’s helped lead for nearly four decades, and he exuded steadfastness in the face of China’s intensifying effort to secure control over Hong Kong.
Now, Ho is the winner of the 2020 Roger N. Baldwin Medal of Liberty, awarded by Human Rights First. We held an online event honoring him on December 10th, International Human Rights Day. “I’m honored to accept this award,” said Ho with his usual humility, “but I do it on behalf of many colleagues who have shared the case of human rights in Hong Kong with me for so many years.”
A longtime local legend, Ho has become more prominent globally as the showdown in Hong Kong comes to be regarded as a defining proxy battle between democracy and authoritarianism. He’s something of a godfather figure in the protest movement that erupted in 2019, an inspiration to a generation of local young lawyers.
“Albert is one of the most steadfast, dedicated, and genuine human rights defenders that I know,” said one young lawyer, who remained anonymous for security reasons. “He has a deep and natural aversion to injustice, which has led him to fight for human rights and democracy over many decades—from helping survivors of the Tiananmen Massacre escape from China to keeping the memory of that tragedy alive through the annual candlelight vigil, from pushing for democracy in Hong Kong to supporting Chinese human rights lawyers who have been persecuted by the State.”
Another told me Ho represents the resilience the human rights legal community will now need amid a new wave of repression. “Albert's sincerity, perseverance, and courage will continue to bring hope and optimism to Hong Kong despite the enormous challenges we face,” she said.
The challenges are enormous indeed. In a major blow to the pro-democracy and human rights movement, the central government in China passed a National Security Law six months ago, basically asserting direct rule over Hong Kong.
In this tough environment, Ho and his team continue to fight for rights in the courtroom. Ho himself faces a dozen charges related to the protests, and his firm is representing many others wrongly charged for peaceful activism.
Ho has also done extensive advocacy for human rights in Mainland China and says he will use the monetary part of the Baldwin award to support lawyers there.
The Baldwin medal is named after Roger Baldwin, a founder member of the ALCU who also established the International League for the Rights of Man. The roster of winners is a pantheon of the world’s leading human rights defenders over the last 30 years. In 2018 Human Rights First awarded the prize to the Yemeni NGO Mwatana, whose chairperson Radhya al-Mutawakel was one of the jurors who chose Ho this year.
"It was great being on the jury that gave Albert the award. I know what it means to be recognized for the work you do, and Albert work deserves to be recognized. I am delighted to know this award will help Albert in his work as it helped us at Mwatana,” she said.
At Thursday’s event, I had the privilege of speaking with him again. It was great to see him on screen, but it’s just not the same as being with him in his cluttered office.