Hong Kong: National Security Law has created a human rights emergency

Hong Kong’s National Security Law (NSL) has decimated the city’s freedoms and created a landscape increasingly devoid of human rights protections, Amnesty International said in a new research briefing released today, exactly one year after the Beijing-imposed legislation took effect.

‘In the Name of National Security’ details how the law enacted on 30 June 2020 has given the authorities free rein to illegitimately criminalize dissent while stripping away the rights of those it targets. 

“In one year, the National Security Law has put Hong Kong on a rapid path to becoming a police state and created a human rights emergency for the people living there,” said Yamini Mishra, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Regional Director.

“From politics to culture, education to media, the law has infected every part of Hong Kong society and fomented a climate of fear that forces residents to think twice about what they say, what they tweet and how they live their lives.

“Ultimately, this sweeping and repressive legislation threatens to make the city a human rights wasteland increasingly resembling mainland China.”

The Hong Kong government must stop using its excessively broad definition of ‘endangering national security’ for the blanket restriction of freedoms.
Yamini Mishra

Based on analysis of court judgments, court hearing notes and interviews with activists targeted under the NSL, Amnesty’s briefing shows how the legislation has been used to carry out a wide range of human rights violations over the past 12 months.

In this time, the government has repeatedly used “national security” as a pretext to justify censorship, harassment, arrests and prosecutions. There is clear evidence indicating that the so-called human rights safeguards set out in the NSL are effectively useless, while the protections existing in regular Hong Kong law are also trumped by it.

Bail reversal violates right to fair trial

On 1 July 2020, the first full day of the law being in force, police arrested more than 300 protesters, including 10 on suspicion of violating the NSL. Since then, the government has continued to arrest and charge individuals under the NSL solely because they have exercised their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association.

Worse still, people charged under the law are effectively presumed guilty rather than innocent, meaning they are denied bail unless they can prove they will not “continue to commit acts endangering national security”.

The briefing also outlines how authorities have used the NSL to:

  • Crack down on international political advocacy, arresting or ordering the arrest of 12 individuals for “colluding” or “conspiracy to collude” with “foreign forces” because they were in contact with foreign diplomats, called for sanctions from other countries or called for other countries to provide asylum for those fleeing from persecution. Others were targeted for their social media posts or for giving interviews to foreign media. 
  • Expand powers for law enforcement investigators – including giving the Hong Kong Police’s national security unit the ability to search properties, freeze or confiscate assets and seize journalistic materials, such as in the two raids on pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily during the year. Such unchecked powers leave little room to prevent potential human rights violations during the investigative process.

“The Hong Kong government must stop using its excessively broad definition of ‘endangering national security’ for the blanket restriction of freedoms. As a start, it must drop all criminal charges against those currently facing prosecution for exercising their human rights,” said Yamini Mishra.

“The onus is also on the United Nations to start an urgent debate on the deteriorating human rights situation in China, including with regards to the implementation of the NSL in Hong Kong.” 

Background

The NSL was unanimously passed by China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee and enacted in Hong Kong on 30 June 2020 without any formal, meaningful public or other local consultation.

The law targets alleged acts of “secession”, “subversion of state power”, “terrorist activities” and “collusion with foreign or external forces to endanger national security”. 

This sweeping definition of “national security”, which follows that of the Chinese central authorities, lacks clarity and legal predictability and has been used arbitrarily as a pretext to restrict the human rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, association and liberty, as well as to repress dissent and political opposition.

The NSL’s arbitrary application and imprecise criminal definitions effectively make it impossible to know how and when it might be deemed as violated, resulting in an instant chilling effect across Hong Kong from day one.

Between 1 July 2020 and 29 June 2021, police arrested or ordered the arrest of at least 118 people in relation to the NSL. As of 29 June 2021, 64 people have been formally charged, of whom 47 are presently in pretrial detention.