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UN voices unanimously condemn Hong Kong's new national security law

Hong Kong's new national security legislation has sparked international concerns over its potential to further erode civil liberties and fundamental freedoms, and civil society engagement with the UN. ISHR calls for the repeal of this law and cease to interpret cooperation with UN bodies as a national security threat.

On 19 March 2024, the Hong Kong government enacted the Safeguarding National Security Ordinance under Article 23 of the Basic Law (commonly referred to as Article 23), a new security law that has ignited widespread concerns over the further erosion of civil liberties in the territory. The legislation introduces 39 overbroad national security crimes covering treason, sedition, theft of State secrets and external interference. It also grants authorities sweeping powers, including holding trials behind closed doors and detaining suspects without charge for up to sixteen days.

The law was expedited through the legislative process following a brief period of public consultation and passed just eleven days after it was tabled. The Hong Kong Legislative Council, comprising ‘patriot’ only lawmakers, unanimously approved it with an 89-0 vote. Even the speaker, who typically abstains from voting, cast a vote in favour. Adding to the intrigue, China’s State media CCTV prematurely announced the voting outcome 20 minutes before the actual commencement of the voting process.

A few moments after the announcement, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk expressed grave concerns regarding the hasty adoption of the bill, despite significant human rights issues raised by the UN. In a critique of the law’s ambiguous and potentially arbitrary nature, he stressed the risks it poses to human rights defenders and journalists, and its chilling effect on legitimate speech and conduct. The High Commissioner also warned that the expansive definition of ‘external force’ may discourage engagement with human rights organisations and UN bodies, contrary to the right to communicate and cooperate with international human rights bodies.

For such important legislation, with a significant impact on human rights to be passed without a thorough process of deliberation and meaningful consultation is a regressive step for the protection of human rights in Hong Kong.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk

In his annual report on reprisals for cooperation with the UN, Secretary-General Guterres had already warned of the chilling effect of restrictive laws on UN engagement, entrenching activists’ self-censorship. This takes place as UN experts and advocates express concerns at the UN being deemed a ‘foreign entity’ in the trial of Hong Kong media entrepreneur Jimmy Lai for ‘collusion with foreign forces.’

Türk’s statement comes one year after he last issued a public statement on the human rights situation in China, when he condemned the sentencing of rights defenders Ding Jiaxi and Xu Zhiyong to 12 and 14 years imprisonment in April 2023

Türk’s strongly-worded statement signals the UN’s profound concern with this bill, and the way it was adopted. While an earlier public expression of concern could have played a greater role in preventing the bill’s adoption in its current version, Türk’s comments are an encouraging sign of his willingness to speak out strongly when China disregards international law. 

In a communication sent to China on 22 March 2024, UN Special Procedures experts voiced deep concerns that Article 23 might curtail the right of individuals and groups to engage with international human rights mechanisms and thus lead to reprisals for cooperating with the UN. The legislation criminalises ‘colluding with external forces’ and ‘external interference’, with ‘external forces’ defined to comprise international organisations, a broad and ambiguous term that might include the UN. Furthermore, the UN experts called for the repeal of the law’s extraterritorial application and a thorough review to ensure its compliance with international law.

Long-standing UN concerns on Hong Kong national security legislation

Article 23 emerges against the backdrop of the National Security Law (NSL) imposed by Beijing in July 2020, which has been criticised for reducing Hong Kong’s autonomy and vaguely criminalising dissenters. The NSL targets so-called acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, with potential life sentences, and has resulted in the arrest of at least 260 individuals since its enactment.

The International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) previously warned against the adverse impact of the NSL on the safe and unhindered engagement of Hong Kong civil society with the UN and its representatives. ‘With the NSL in place, individuals or organisations in Hong Kong, as well as those linked to the territory, face a heightened risk when addressing human rights concerns with the UN,’ explained an ISHR report published in 2022.

In its June 2022 findings on the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in Hong Kong, a UN committee urged Hong Kong to repeal the NSL and ensure an open, inclusive, and transparent legislative process for a new national security law, as well as active participation from civil society and the general public. When requested clarification by a range of UN committees during public reviews in Geneva since 2022, Hong Kong authorities did not exclude that interactions with UN bodies may fall under the scope of the NSL. 

The Hong Kong Centre for Human Rights has disputed the new law’s legitimacy following the conclusion of the month-long consultation on the Article 23 bill in February 2024.

The legislative process and the proposed Article 23 directly contradict the authoritative interpretations of human rights obligations applicable to the Hong Kong Government by UN human rights mechanisms.
Hong Kong Centre for Human Rights

The Hong Kong Democratic Council (HKDC) has also strongly voiced its objections to Article 23. It views it as a further draconian evolution of the National Security Law that will undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy, and is worried that this legislation could lead to increased peer surveillance and create an environment in Hong Kong reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution.

[Article 23 is] a comprehensive upgrade of the National Security Law in cracking down on Hong Kong’s autonomy and Hong Kongers’ rights around the world. It will also encourage peer surveillance and rile up a Cultural Revolution-esque atmosphere in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong Democratic Council (HKDC)
The implementation of Article 23 in Hong Kong, coupled with the existing National Security Law, places human rights defenders in a perilous position. Without clear guarantees from the Hong Kong authorities that engagement with the UN is exempt from these laws, activists and NGOs face a heightened threat of reprisals. It also exacerbates the chilling effect on meaningful engagement with international human rights mechanisms.
Lee Chung Lun, ISHR China programme officer

The human rights situation in Hong Kong, highlighted by the detention of individuals like media owner Jimmy Lai and human rights defender Chow Hang Tung, has attracted global scrutiny. UN Special Procedures experts have expressed serious concerns about the NSL and urged Hong Kong to repeal the NSL and ensure its compliance with international human rights obligations in 2021 and 2023. This was echoed in China’s recent Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in January 2024, where eighteen States raised human rights concerns in Hong Kong, with ten recommending the NSL’s repeal or review.

Article 23 and the NSL reflect China’s troubling approach to national security that mirrors the oppressive measures used against Uyghurs, Tibetans, and mainland Chinese dissidents. In line with recommendations from UN experts, ISHR calls on UN Member States to urge the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities to:

  • Repeal the Article 23 national security ordinance and the June 2020 National Security Law.
  • Release all individuals arbitrarily detained under these laws.
  • Cease to interpret cooperation with UN bodies as a national security threat, and provide public, clear reassurances that UN engagement does not fall under the scope of national security legislation.
  • Cease and desist from all acts of intimidation and reprisal against those who engage or cooperate with the UN and who exercise their right to defend rights. 

 

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