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Human rights defender's story: Hong Kong civil society

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©Charlotte Giang, 2023

Story behind

Until 2020, civil society in Hong Kong was vibrant. The Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF), for example, was established in 2002 with the aim of giving a platform to different organisations to promote the development of human rights in Hong Kong. The CHRF was responsible for organising the largest peaceful protests in Hong Kong’s history, notably protests against the National Security Law in 2003 with half a million Hong Kongers taking to the streets, as well as the one and two million person-strong anti-extradition law protests on 9 and 16 June 2019 respectively.

Human rights organisations in Hong Kong had engaged consistently and constructively with the UN, and regularly contributed to the work of the UN Treaty Bodies and Special Procedures. Forty-five civil society groups organised themselves into a strong coalition for policy advocacy and engagement with the Hong Kong government linked to the 2018 Universal Periodic Review, while UN expert recommendations and comments on Hong Kong were widely shared, and often addressed in substantive meetings of the Legislative Council, Hong Kong’s elected legislature. Many saw the UN as a venue of justice, as well as a source of authoritative guidance on issues ranging from police violence to abuses against migrant domestic workers.

This engagement came to a screeching halt after the imposition by Beijing of the National Security Law for Hong Kong (NSL), which entered into force on 1 July 2020.

What happened

Since the promulgation of the NSL, many activists have been prosecuted and jailed for their activities. Many NGOs have made the decision to cease operations, or dramatically shift their work, while other activists and NGO workers have chosen to – or been forced to – abandon their rights work or continue work in exile. The NSL directly places human rights defenders in a new and heightened risk of reprisals and intimidation.

Under the NSL, the act of providing State secrets or intelligence concerning national security to a foreign institution constitutes the crime of collusion. The offense of ‘collusion’ is overly-broad, in both legal scope and implementation.

State secrets and intelligence concerning national security are not defined in the NSL. There is no certainty as to whether making submissions to the UN treaty bodies, Special Procedures or the Human Rights Council would constitute collusion, as it involves providing information that could be arbitrarily determined by the authorities as ‘State secrets’ or ‘intelligence concerning national security’. The way the law is written, anyone from Hong Kong who shares information overseas can potentially be accused of collusion. Under the present circumstances, it is reasonable to presume that this includes communication or information sharing for the purpose of engaging with the UN.

Other factors have also impacted the ability of Hong Kong civil society to engage with the UN. There are no coordinating organisations anymore, nor assistance with capacity building. Organisations cannot access resources freely and safely. Even for the activists who have relocated overseas, there is the fear that the safety of their relatives or colleagues still in Hong Kong could be endangered by their advocacy overseas. They also face the difficulty of accessing information from the ground. These factors have severely impacted the ability of Hong Kong civil society to engage with the UN.

The case of the Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF) is instructive in this regard – and demonstrates the ways in which an overly-broad interpretation of ‘collusion’ undermines UN engagement and suppresses civil society’s work. The Hong Kong Police Force (HKPF), despite having worked with the CHRF for years on the arrangement of peaceful protests, issued a letter in April 2021 concerning the status of the group under the Societies Ordinance. The CHRF had registered in 2006, but de-registered two months later; they continued their work without hindrance, including through regular notification of public assemblies to the HKPF, in the years following and as recently as December 2020.

In the letter, the HKPF also required the Front to list its activities (public demonstrations and rallies), its sources of income and expenditures. Most worryingly, they explicitly asked CHRF to explain the purpose of a joint letter it sent to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in December 2020 relating to cases of alleged police violence. The CHRF was forced to disband on 15 August 2021, and its case was included in the 2021 ‘reprisals report’ of the UN Secretary-General.

In the first two years of the National Security Law, Hong Kong independent media documented the closure – under duress, or out of an abundance of caution – of nearly five dozen civil society organisations. Reflecting on this situation during the July 2022 UN Human Rights Committee review of Hong Kong, experts specifically asked several times whether the government delegation could confirm that individuals engaging with the Committee would be protected from reprisal or retaliation. At each instance, the delegation failed to provide clear guarantees, noting only that ‘normal interactions’ with international groups would not be considered prohibited activities under the NSL and, later, that ‘it would depend’ on the nature of the engagement. The same happened in February 2023 at another UN expert review, this time on Hong Kong’s implementation of economic, social and cultural rights. The executive branch’s refusal to condemn reprisals provides additional justification for the concerns of activists that the NSL, and specifically the crime of collusion, may be applied against them for their UN engagement.

What do we want

We want the UN and the international community to:

Urge the Hong Kong authorities to publicly clarify that UN engagement does not constitute collusion

Call the Hong Kong government to provide a safe and enabling environment for defenders and cease pursuing further legislation that would impede civil society from engaging in work to promote and protect human rights, including through the UN human rights mechanisms