Human Rights Committee Warns Authorities Not to Retaliate Against Activists
By Sophie Richardson
Hong Kong’s secretary for constitutional and mainland affairs, Erick Tsang, speaks during a press conference in Hong Kong, November 29, 2021. © 2021 Vernon Yuen/NurPhoto via AP
United Nations independent human rights experts in Geneva finished questioning Hong Kong government officials today. The UN Human Rights Committee’s (HRC) review of Hong Kong under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, was its first since the Chinese government imposed a draconian, rights-erasing National Security Law in June 2020.
Hong Kong’s delegation was headed by Erick Tsang, Hong Kong’s secretary for constitutional and mainland affairs, who was sanctioned by the United States in August 2020 for his role in “undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy.” HRC members asked a range of tough questions: What are the obstacles to universal suffrage in Hong Kong? What is the chemical composition of crowd dispersal substances? The delegation faced questions about the hostile environment for civil society groups, the basis for withdrawing textbooks from schools, and the authorities’ use in “smart prisons” of surveillance technology to monitor detainees – even as they shower or use the toilet.
Ultimately, the Hong Kong delegation’s answers were empty propaganda. Few answers responded to the committee members’ specific questions, yet Tsang tried to reassure them: “There are…no causes for concern.”
The committee’s consistent focus on the National Security Law’s vaguely worded criminalization of “collusion” with “foreign forces” showed profound concern. Committee members repeatedly asked whether those engaged in the UN review itself, Hong Kong delegation members, committee members, and civil society groups that contributed to the review, could constitute such collusion.
The question wasn’t rhetorical. Until June 2020, Hong Kong civil society thrived, tackling diverse challenges including media freedom, prison conditions, and poverty alleviation. But under the National Security Law, many groups chose to disband rather than risk prosecution; others have been targeted on baseless pretexts and shuttered. Some of the most prominent rights activists, including labor leader Lee Cheuk-yan and organizer Chow Hang-tung, have been jailed, while others have been driven into exile.
HRC’s chair, Photini Patzartzis, ended the session with a clear caution, that the authorities should not retaliate against members of Hong Kong civil society for their engagement in the review. The review and its assessment, expected in a few weeks, show critical support for courageous Hong Kong activists – and show authorities their actions will not escape international scrutiny.