In a first, UN member states have singled out Hong Kong’s human rights situation from that of China’s with specific recommendations, elevating scrutiny of the city and placing its international reputation on the line, an alliance of 45 civil society groups said on Wednesday.
The warning from Hong Kong’s United Periodic Review Coalition came after UN representatives from Britain, France, Canada and Australia publicly urged both national and local officials on Tuesday to uphold rights and freedom in Hong Kong. Meanwhile, re-education camps in Xinjiang remained a focal point for Western nations during the Human Rights Council hearing in Geneva.
“We are now witnessing a substantial shift in foreign policy towards Hong Kong by the international community,” UPR Coalition spokesman Simon Henderson said, noting the worsening situation had “clearly harmed” the city’s international reputation and amid persistent denials by senior government officials.
Henderson added the warning sent “a strong signal” to Hong Kong officials that they needed to “change course”.
It was the first time that any major UN member states had brought up specific recommendations targeting the city during the council’s five-year review process, according to the coalition.
The last was by African country Benin in 2009 recommending Hong Kong as well as Macau “continue to function according to their realities and preserve different rights of their citizens in accordance with their laws”.
China and Hong Kong can choose to accept the recommendations or just acknowledge them. The report will then be tabled to the council for formal endorsement in March next year.
The development came after Hong Kong immigration authorities last month denied a work visa renewal for veteran British journalist Victor Mallet, who in August moderated an event at the city’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club featuring a talk by a pro-independence activist. Pro-democracy activists were also disqualified from the city’s Legislative Council or barred from running during the reporting period.
Seven country representatives made use of a portion of their allocated 45 seconds of speaking time to draw attention to the situation in Hong Kong.
During the hearing on Tuesday, France urged the city to “guarantee freedom of expression, assembly and association”. Canada pushed for officials to “ensure the right of Hong Kong to take part in government, without distinction of any kind”.
Immediately after flagging concerns about Xinjiang and Tibet, Britain’s permanent representative to the UN, Julian Braithwaite, turned to Hong Kong. He urged China to respect the rights and freedoms guaranteed in the Sino-British Joint Declaration, the bilateral document signed in 1984 that set out the terms of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty on July 1, 1997.
Five country representatives including those of the Netherlands, the United States and Germany submitted written questions on the state of the city’s press freedom and restrictions to the freedoms of expression and association.
In response to concerns, Hong Kong’s delegate to the UN hearing, Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung, sounded a defiant tone, calling the concerns “unwarranted, unfounded and unsubstantiated” and stemming from “a lack of understanding”.
The NGOs expressed disappointment in Cheung.
“We saw no new commitment, no new proposal, policy or legislation,” Henderson said. “Instead a defensive statement was issued.”
Henderson called for legal reform on public orders and electoral laws, and for the government to be more open to political activists from across the ideological spectrum.
Civic Party lawmaker Kwok Ka-ki said Cheung had failed to give a clear explanation of Mallet’s case to the UN.
“The responses from Matthew Cheung are disappointing,” Kwok said. “It is actually a shame for Hong Kong.”
The lawmaker added the government had failed to ensure the rights of Hongkongers to run for office and vote for candidates they wanted.
“In what way will these banned people and parties, without any means … infringe the safety of Hong Kong?” he asked.
In 2016, pro-independence activist Edward Leung Tin-kei and five others were disqualified from contesting the Legco elections in September 2016 because they had called for Hong Kong to break away from China or refused to pledge allegiance to the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution.
Since then, three other pro-democracy hopefuls have been barred from running for Legco seats because of their political stance.
They include Lau Siu-lai, who was barred last month from running in the West Kowloon by-election on the grounds that she had once advocated self-determination for Hong Kong.
Separately, the coalition expressed concern that the Hong Kong pro-democracy party Demosisto’s submission had been screened out by the UN Human Rights Council secretariat. No reason for the exclusion has been given.
Bonnie Leung Wing-man of Civil Human Rights Front, an NGO, said Demosisto’s submission did not touch on independence, unlike other submissions from Tibetan and Mongolian groups that were excluded in the past.
National and local officials will have an opportunity to respond to the recommendations at the UN hearings on Thursday and Friday.
Additional reporting by Sum Lok-kei