Hong Kong must repeal national security law, says UN rights watchdog

A man waves a Chinese flag in Hong Kong to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the city's handover from Britain to China, on July 1, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

GENEVA (AFP) - A UN watchdog voiced alarm on Wednesday (July 27) at deteriorating rights in Hong Kong, especially calling on the Chinese territory to repeal the sweeping National Security Law imposed by Beijing two years ago.

The UN Human Rights Committee, which oversees respect for a global treaty on civil and political rights, said it was "deeply concerned about the overly broad interpretation of and arbitrary application of the law".

In its report, which was harshly criticised by the Hong Kong government, the committee said the territory should "take concrete steps to repeal the current national security law and, in the meantime, refrain from applying the law."

The committee is made up of 18 independent experts who are appointed by the UN but do not speak on its behalf.

It pointed out that the law had reportedly led to "the arrests of over 200 persons since its enactment in 2020, including 12 children, on grounds of endangering national security".

The 2020 security law, imposed amid a sweeping crackdown after pro-democracy protests engulfed the city, criminalised subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.

Since the law took effect, opposition has been quashed and most leading democracy figures have fled the country, been disqualified from office or jailed.

'Unsubstantiated criticisms'

The committee does not review China, which has not ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), but Hong Kong became a party to the covenant through the Basic Law that enshrined the territory's semi-autonomous status in the handover from Britain 25 years ago.

Hong Kong slammed the findings presented after the committee's fourth review of the territory, which involved a dialogue with authorities.

A spokesman for Hong Kong's Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau said authorities were "completely dismayed that the committee continues to express unsubstantiated criticisms".

"It should be stressed that the National Security Law was enacted to restore the enjoyment of rights and freedoms which many people in (Hong Kong) had been unable to enjoy during the period of serious violence between June 2019 and early 2020," he said.

In its conclusions, the committee lamented that the security law was not in line with the ICCPR and had been enacted "without consultation with public and civil society" in the city.

'Lack of clarity'

It also warned that its "lack of clarity" made it difficult to determine what behaviours and conduct constituted a criminal offence.

And it decried that the law resuscitated sedition as an offence for the first time in decades, pointing to how it was used to charge academics, journalists and others "for having exercised their legitimate right to freedom of speech".

The committee lamented that national security cases could be transferred to mainland China, as well as "the excessive power" afforded to Hong Kong's chief executive under the law.

This, it warned, "can effectively undermine the independence of judiciary and procedural safeguards for access to justice and right to a fair trial".

Committee members (from left) Vasilka Sancin, Photini Pazartzis and Christopher Arif Bulkan, present findings on political and civil rights in Hong Kong, Macao, Georgia, Ireland, Luxembourg and Uruguay, during a press conference. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Committee vice-chairman Christopher Arif Bulkan told reporters the experts were also concerned that Hong Kong "had not provided explicit assurances" that civil society members who had assisted in the committee's review would not face charges under the law, although no such reprisals had so far been reported.

The experts also voiced alarm at the widespread use of police force against protesters, warning the guidelines in place were allegedly not in line with international human rights standards.

They pointed to the use of "rubber pellets, sponge bullets, tear gas and water cannons containing chemical irritants, against unarmed protesters including pregnant women, bystanders, commuters and journalists during protests from July to November 2019".

The experts called on Hong Kong to "take concrete measures to effectively prevent and eliminate all forms of excessive use of force by law enforcement officers," and to investigate all allegations of excessive use of force "promptly, thoroughly and impartially".

The committee requested that Hong Kong provide information about how it had implemented the experts' recommendations within three years.

Expressing its strong rejection, China on Thursday said the UN report was “rather partial and unfair”.

At a regular media briefing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said: “Regrettably, certain members of the UN Human Rights Committee, being ideologically biased and oblivious to facts, chose to trust false information and narratives instead and commented irresponsibly on the ‘one country, two systems’ framework and human rights in Hong Kong in the concluding observations.”

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