How to investigate the police: Lessons for Hong Kong from around the world

By Brian Dooley, Senior Advisor at Human Rights First

 “Five demands! Not one less!” is a chant you hear at virtually every Hong Kong protest. And one of those demands is an independent investigation into the police’s use of force.

In 2019, people in Hong Kong began demonstrating in huge numbers to oppose a bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China. The continuing protests remained largely peaceful, but the Hong Kong police have responded with batons, tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, water cannons and live rounds.

Demanding accountability, protesters want an independent investigation, insisting the Hong Kong Police Force is unable to investigate itself, and that existing inquiry mechanisms are too weak.

Foreign experts called in by the Hong Kong authorities to support an investigation undertaken by the local Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC) quit, citing “a crucial shortfall … in the powers, capacity and independent investigative capability of IPCC”.

So, if Hong Kong’s current mechanism isn’t up to the vital job of investigating its police, who should do it and what should it look like? 

There’s no one model for a good inquiry into police behaviour, but several past examples could help shape a successful mechanism for accountability.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced in November 2019 that the investigation should follow the example of the inquiry into the 2011 riots in north London and the socio-economic factors that led up that unrest.

It’s encouraging that she’s open to looking at other international experiences, but the inquiry into what happened in Tottenham isn’t really the example to follow. That investigation focused more on the underlying causes of social unrest than on police behaviour. What’s needed is a candid, public, root-and-branch examination of what the Hong Kong police have done since mid-2019.

US Kerner Commission: broad representation

Better models to examine might include the Kerner Commission in the United States, which investigated large-scale disturbances across American cities in 1967. The commissioners were all American, but they included representatives from civil society as well as politicians. The report, which followed a series of public hearings, was produced fairly fast (by the end of February 1968) and found that white racism was to blame for many of the problems it investigated.

Crucially, the commission enjoyed widespread public trust, and more than two million copies of its 456-page final report were sold.

UK Scarman Report: identifying policing failures

If Carrie Lam’s government wants to look at British examples, there are things to learn from the Scarman Report into the April 1981 Brixton riots, which was based on an inquiry headed by British judge Lord Scarman. These included a change in policing approaches, including not targeting young people with widespread searches, and having greater consultation with local communities. Although those of us who had experienced the south London police behaviour first-hand that April weekend of the riots hoped for something more hard-hitting, the report still identified serious police failings and proposed some structural reform.

UK Bloody Sunday inquiry: two tries and 30 years

Maybe a more useful experience for Hong Kong to learn from is the saga of the two inquiries into the incident known as “Bloody Sunday”, when British security forces opened fire on a peaceful civil rights march in the Northern Irish city of Derry in January 1972, shooting dozens of people in 10 minutes, killing 14.  

The first Bloody Sunday inquiry took place within weeks of the killings and was a disaster. The Widgery Inquiry is an exemplary lesson in how not to conduct an investigation into security force abuse. Also headed by a British judge, the inquiry largely exonerated the British soldiers who had committed the killings and was widely dismissed as a whitewash of the truth.

Public trust in the Widgery Inquiry was so low that another fuller, public and independent inquiry had to be set up almost 30 years after the original incident to finally establish and announce the full truth. The Saville Inquiry – headed by judges from Britain, Canada and New Zealand – found that none of the protesters had been posing a threat when they were shot by British soldiers and that the British military had lied about what happened to cover up the truth.

The inquiry was exhaustive, taking 12 years from the date of its commission to producing its report, but it carried widespread public trust. The public could attend the hearings, which were extensively reported on by Irish and British media, and the process was generally seen to be transparent and comprehensive.

It also has powers to subpoena witnesses to give evidence, which is another lesson for Hong Kong.

The point here for Carrie Lam’s government is, first, that a cover-up won’t work and, second, that it’s best to set an inquiry that works and is seen to work, because a box-ticking exercise will likely backfire.

South Africa: Telling the truth

During South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission of the mid-1990s, more than 1,000 meetings were held across the country looking into human rights violations that had happened over the previous 35 years of apartheid government. The Commission had the power to grant amnesties to those whose crimes were politically motivated and who had told the full truth.

This was more of a restorative justice model, which was controversial in that those guilty – including members of the security forces – were not necessarily officially punished. The emphasis was on publicly telling the truth. Some hearings were televised live, with most summarized in a weekly TV round-up.

The big lesson here is one of transparency and, again, of public credibility. South Africans generally trusted the process because they were able to see what was happening and because it was chaired by Desmond Tutu who commanded great respect.

Bahrain: Great fanfare but lacking implementation

In the first half of 2011, the small island kingdom of Bahrain was rocked first by large-scale peaceful protests for democracy, and then by their violent suppression by the government’s police and army.

The government resisted establishing an investigation into violence by the security forces. But Bahrain’s international allies gently suggested that the international community might set up its own inquiry instead if the government didn’t. At that point, the government suddenly found the enthusiasm to create an independent commission of inquiry and appointed impressive international legal experts to conduct the investigation.

The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry did a fairly good and swift job of confirming what those of us who had documented the abuses there had previously reported.

The report was released in November 2011 to great fanfare in one of the ruling family’s palaces. Hundreds of us – NGO researchers, local officials and foreign dignitaries – sat listening as the head of the inquiry, international legal scholar Cherif Bassiouni, read out the findings in front of the King.

In a painful 30 minutes for the ruling family, Bassiouni repeated what NGOs had been reporting for months: that Bahrain’s police and army had indeed killed protesters, arrested thousands more and tortured people in custody – some to death.

Ultimately Bahrain’s government never implemented the reforms proposed by the inquiry and ignored the recommendations. This, too, should be a lesson for Hong Kong’s civil society: there must be an agreed follow-up mechanism for reforms proposed by any inquiry.

In an open letter at the end of December 2019, 44 parliamentarians and other dignitaries from 18 countries urged Carrie Lam to “make it possible for an independent inquiry into police brutality to be established”. The signatories warned Lam: “Should you continue to reject this idea, we call on the international community to establish an international, independent inquiry mechanism.”

Quite how this would happen is unclear, and the warning in the letter may even harden the stance of the Hong Kong government. Nevertheless, it’s a threat that might make some in Lam’s administration take notice. 

Hong Kong must find a solution to its police inquiry problem that suits its local context, but a quick, public, thorough investigation that enjoys public trust and has the proper powers to call witnesses isn’t impossible – and should be announced immediately.