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Hong Kong rights review marred by crackdown on civil society groups

A United Nations human rights council review of Hong Kong’s rights record has been hampered by a citywide crackdown on civil society groups, which would normally make submissions as part of the process, overseas rights groups have warned.

“Since the enactment of the [national security law on July 1, 2020], nearly 100 civil society organizations operating in Hong Kong have been forced to disband or relocate facing similar threats posed by the law,” London-based Amnesty International said in its submission to the council.

“The [law] created an unprecedented chilling effect among civil society groups.”

It said the civil society landscape had changed drastically since the last review session.

Of the 15 groups and networks that submitted information to the UN Human Rights Committee in 2020 in advance of the adoption of the list of issues prior to reporting, nearly half have either closed, left Hong Kong, or stopped all activities due to threats posed by the national security law, Amnesty said.

It said local human rights groups that used to facilitate civil society groups’ participation in the UN human rights
mechanisms disbanded in 2020, with several of their leaders currently detained awaiting trial on national
security charges, and others forced into exile.

It said groups had been deterred from submitting to the review for fear of being accused of “collusion with foreign powers” under national security law.

The same issue was raised by the U.N. committee’s vice chair Christopher Arif Bulkan who asked Hong Kong officials at a hearing on July 8:

“Can you provide assurances that the [civil society organizations] who participate here today, and over the next three days, are not in danger of prosecution or victimization under the national security law, for such engagement?” Bulkan asked.

Apollonia Liu, deputy secretary for security, said the national security law and Basic Law contain in-built protections for human rights, and that the crackdown hadn’t affected the human rights landscape in the city.

Freedoms dismantled

She cited the willingness of protesters during the 2019 protest movement to fight back against police violence as evidence of a “terrorist” threat to Hong Kong.

But the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the national security law has been used to dismantle Hong Kong’s freedoms, and not just for those who threw bricks and Molotov cocktails.

“Basic civil and political rights long protected in Hong Kong—including freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly—are being erased,” it said in its submission to the review process.

More than 50 groups across a cross section of Hong Kong’s civil society have disbanded since the imposition of the law, HRW said.

“They included some of Hong Kong’s oldest civil society groups, such as the city’s second-largest labor union, the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Union, and the Hong Kong Professional Teacher’s Union, as well as newer organizations that formed since the 2019 mass protests,” it said.

Police have also demanded information from civil society groups … Some people were arrested for refusing to hand over data.”

Amnesty also cited the charging of a group with “collusion with a foreign power” under the law; the Hong Kong Alliance, which ran the now-banned Tiananmen massacre candlelight vigils in Victoria Park on June 4 for 30 years.

Several of its members, including barrister Chow Hang-tung, are currently behind bars awaiting trial on the same charge.

Beijing-controlled newspapers also intimidated and shut down another major protest organizer, the Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF), claiming that the group’s actions “bring chaos and disasters to the city,” and was “supported by foreign anti-China forces,” Amnesty said.

Lifeboat visas

CHRF’s convenor, Figo Chan, faces at least 14 counts of crimes involving his efforts to organize peaceful protests in 2020, and has been held in custody since May 2021 for “organizing unlawful assembly,” it said, adding that the CHRF disbanded in August 2021.

Bulkan also took issue with the recent use of colonial-era sedition laws to prosecute the authors of a children’s book, supporters who clapped from the public gallery during a court hearing, and a pop star who criticized the government’s COVID-19 policies on social media.

“These actions are acceptable in a democratic society, which is the legitimate exercise of freedom of expression protected by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” Bulkan told the council. “In a democratic society, individuals have the right to criticize the government, and the crime of sedition should not be used as an excuse to suppress dissenting voices.”

The session of the committee of 18 international experts will continue on Tuesday, while a closing session will take place on July 22.

The London-based rights group Hong Kong Watch has warned that almost two million Hong Kongers lack a viable route out of the city as they are ineligible for the lifeboat visas currently on offer from the U.K., Canada and Australia.

“Governments around the world must do more to support Hong Kongers who need to get out of the city,” the group’s chief executive Benedict Rogers said in a recent statement.

“The need is greater now more than ever as John Lee, the former Security Secretary who was responsible for the 2019 crackdown and whose entire career has been in policing and locking people up, takes the reins in Hong Kong,” Rogers said.

“There is now a genuine and well-founded fear that Hong Kong is becoming a police state.”

The U.K.’s British National Overseas (BNO) visa scheme will covers around 5.4 million people when a rule change to include 18–24-year-olds takes effect in November, Hong Kong Watch said.

Canada’s route is open to around 200,000 people, and Australia’s will benefit around 11,000 Hong Kongers already in the country, it said.

The U.S. has only allowed 20,000 Hong Kongers to overstay existing visas, while the EU lacks any scheme at all, it said.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.