Hong Kong security law 'may break international laws'

UN experts call on China to explain apparent breaches of human rights obligations

Hong Kong’s national security law risks breaching multiple international laws and the declaration of human rights, a coalition of United Nations human rights experts has said.

The rare and stinging communique (pdf) from seven different working groups and special rapporteurs warned the Chinese government that the law infringed on fundamental rights, lacked precision, and may not meet international thresholds of “necessity, proportionality, and non-discrimination”.

“We recommend review and reconsideration of this legislation to ensure the law is in compliance with China’s international human rights obligations,” it said.

The coalition also requested urgent clarification or explanation of apparent breaches of international law.

The law was imposed by Beijing just over two months ago, bypassing Hong Kong’s legislature but with the support of its government. The law criminalised acts of subversion, secession, terrorism and foreign collusion, for which so far 25 people, including leading pro-democracy figures, have been arrested, although only one has been charged, and newspapers raided. The widely condemned law has had a chilling effect on the pro-democracy movement as well as educators, media, academics, and politicians.

In the diplomatic language of the UN, the letter brought “to [the] government’s attention” numerous issues with the law which compounded already existing international criticisms, including that the law was so broad and ill-defined it was “open to abuse”, and appeared to criminalise actions from freedom of expression to political writing.

It noted in particular the prescribed crimes of secession and subversion, which it found to be dangerously interchangeable and going beyond internationally agreed definitions of terrorism, and open to misuse against human rights defenders, journalists and civil society actors.

“National security is not a term of art, nor does the use of this phrase as a legislative matter give absolute discretion to the state,” it said.

The law’s wording of the crime of secession was “so broad and imprecise” that the experts were troubled it would redefine “a range of legitimate activities expressly protected by the ICCPR [international covenant on civil and political rights]” as crimes. The experts had already told Beijing repeatedly about their concern over the misuse of the term subversion – deployed around the world “to punish individuals for what they think (or what they are thought to think)”, it said.

“We are concerned that subversion’s application may not be limited to a narrow purpose but may instead be used to detain, try and criminalise persons engaged in political activities, as well as social and educational targets.”

The letter welcomed the law’s specific articles committing to the rule of law, but said it “nonetheless poses a serious risk that these fundamental freedoms and due process protections may be infringed upon”, including the express curtailment of freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly, and association.

“We underscore that security and human rights are intertwined and not separate,” it said.

The experts said a key aspect of the law which allowed Beijing’s central government to take jurisdiction over some cases was a de facto breach of the ICCPR because Beijing was not a signatory to it, and the disqualification of people convicted under the law from running in elections appeared to breach both the ICCPR and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The letter also criticised the establishment of a secret police force and a government-led secret oversight committee, as well as the subjecting of police and prosecutors to an oath of secrecy. It recommended the appointment of a fully independent reviewer of the law and its application, and offered the services of the UN.

China’s foreign ministry said the law “punishes an extremely small number and protects the absolute majority” in the financial hub.

“Some people disregard the facts and maliciously slander China’s human rights situation... and crudely interfere in China’s internal affairs,” ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters.

“Stop meddling in Hong Kong affairs and China’s affairs in any way.”

Contributor

Helen Davidson

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Hong Kong protesters go on trial as fight for democracy continues
Case highlights failure to honour promise of free elections, say campaigners

Suzanne Sataline in Hong Kong and agencies

18, Nov, 2018 @6:01 PM

Article image
Former UK employee in Hong Kong 'tortured in 15-day China ordeal'
Simon Cheng, who worked at consulate, alleges repeated mental and physical abuse

Guardian reporter in Hong Kong and Patrick Wintour

20, Nov, 2019 @12:43 PM

Article image
Hong Kong’s security laws: what are they and why are they so controversial?
Campaigners object to Beijing’s proposed laws against ‘treason and subversion’, which follow months of protests

Helen Davidson and Lily Kuo in Beijing

21, May, 2020 @5:08 PM

Article image
Thousands march in Hong Kong for release of pro-democracy leaders
In sweltering heat, protesters wear brown prison uniforms in homage to jailed Alex Chow, Nathan Law and Joshua Wong

Tom Phillips in Beijing

20, Aug, 2017 @2:03 PM

Article image
Hong Kong democracy campaigners jailed over anti-China protests
Alex Chow, Nathan Law, and Joshua Wong given six to eight month sentences for roles in anti-government occupation known as the umbrella movement

Tom Phillips in Beijing

17, Aug, 2017 @8:27 AM

Article image
Key pro-democracy figures go on trial over Hong Kong protests
Veteran activist Lee Cheuk-yan accuses police and government of depriving Hongkongers of constitutional rights

Helen Davidson in Taipei and agencies

16, Feb, 2021 @10:27 AM

Article image
Hong Kong student fears UK visa may be denied over protest conviction
Umbrella movement leader Alex Chow due to begin master’s degree at LSE but says his visa has been delayed without explanation

Tom Phillips in Hong Kong

14, Sep, 2016 @11:49 AM

Article image
Beijing calls Hong Kong bar association chief an ‘anti-China politician’
Authorities lambast British-born Paul Harris for criticising treatment of pro-democracy campaigners

Helen Davidson in Taipei

27, Apr, 2021 @11:10 AM

Article image
Controversial Hong Kong national security law comes into effect
Critics say broad scope of crimes targeted by law marks full takeover by China

Lily Kuo in Beijing and Guardian reporter in Hong Kong

30, Jun, 2020 @6:45 PM

Article image
European leaders condemn China over 'deplorable' Hong Kong security bill
Beijing move to stamp out anti-government protests poses diplomatic test for UK

Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor

30, Jun, 2020 @12:24 PM