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.”