On 30 May 2022, Hong Kong Watch and ARTICLE 19 made a joint submission to the UN Human Rights Committee to highlight the Hong Kong Government (HKG)’s systematic efforts to suffocate civil society, weaponize the law against activists and political opponents, and erase independent media. The Committee will undertake its fourth review of Hong Kong at the upcoming 135th session. Hong Kong Watch and ARTICLE 19 urge the Committee to express its deep concern about the rapid deterioration of civil and political rights and call on the HKG to immediately and concretely reverse course.
“The human rights situation in Hong Kong has deteriorated severely and dramatically over the past three years,” said Benedict Rogers, Co-founder and Chief-Executive of Hong Kong Watch.
“With each fresh assault on civil society, the Hong Kong Government demonstrates its total lack of concern for international norms,” said Michael Caster, ARTICLE 19’s Asia Digital Programme Manager. “This review is an opportunity for the Human Rights Committee to firmly condemn Hong Kong’s human rights record and press for immediate change.”
The imposition of the oppressive National Security Law (NSL) in July 2020 has resulted in increasing threats to the freedom of religion or belief, restrictions of internet freedoms, severe curtailment of freedom of expression, and an outright assault on the independent press—all in the name of national security. As of 28 March 2022, 183 people have been arrested under the NSL. Hong Kong Watch themselves have been the subject of government targeting under the NSL, accused of ‘Collusion with a Foreign Country or with External Elements to Endanger National Security,’ for their documentation of human rights violations. Their website has been censored in Hong Kong.
As of the start of 2022, there were 721 political prisoners in Hong Kong, with 555 given custodial sentences and 166 detained pending trial. Despite domestic legal protections for fair trial rights, arbitrary and lengthy pre-trial detention of pro-democracy activists is commonplace parallel to repeated denial of bail. For example, of the 113 individuals charged under the NSL, three-quarters have been denied bail.
The HKG has rapidly and dramatically dismantled press freedom in Hong Kong over the past two years. Since the imposition of the NSL, almost all independent and pro-democracy media outlets have been forced to close. At least 18 journalists have been arrested and 12 journalists and media executives are in jail awaiting trial. Authorities forced the closure of Apple Daily and its parent company Next Digital as well as pro-democracy publication Stand News. Citizen News also shut down referencing the ‘deteriorating’ media environment while the imposition of a new director at Radio Television Hong Kong has eliminated editorial independence. Reports of violence against journalists are also frequent. Of a survey of 222 journalists by Hong Kong Journalists Association, 64% reported experiencing police violence on the job. One former South China Morning Post photojournalist reported being teargassed at close range for his journalism.
Hong Kong Watch and ARTICLE 19 express deep concern of the HKG’s complete disregard for academic freedom demonstrated through the systematic targeting of academics, students, and institutions under the NSL and other vague or overbroad provisions. Academics have faced targeted harassment campaigning from pro-Beijing publications including state-owned Wen Wei Po newspaper and Ta Kung Pao. Student unions have also been targeted for their expression with the imposition of punitive measures and sanctions, dismissal from university facilities, the launch of criminal investigations, and the arrest of former student union members.
Since the introduction of the NSL, at least 50 civil society groups and unions in Hong Kong have disbanded, including Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, the Civil Human Rights Front, HK Alliance, Amnesty International, and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation. Local and international groups still doing advocacy in Hong Kong have downscaled their activities and refocused work or stopped accepting money from overseas.
Hong Kong Watch and ARTICLE 19 have provided a series of recommendations for the UN Human Rights Committee in line with Hong Kong, China’s international human rights obligations. The HKG must immediately repeal the National Security Law. It must reverse its deterioration of access to justice and the right to a fair trial. The authorities’ campaign against civil society cannot continue while it hopes to feign compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The freedoms of expression, information, assembly, and association are being persistently eroded by those in power, leaving no illusions of democracy in Hong Kong.
“Hong Kong is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and as such has international legal obligations which it is currently flouting constantly and repeatedly,” said Rogers. “Our submission details the various ways in which Hong Kong is in breach of its obligations, and we hope that the UN Human Rights Committee will examine these very seriously and address these grave concerns with the governments of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and the People’s Republic of China.”
“Without immediate course-correction, Hong Kong will sadly be indistinguishable from the human rights nightmare of mainland China,” said Caster.