Hong Kong, a Special Administrative Region of China, maintains separate governing and economic systems from that of mainland China under the principle of “one country, two systems”. Chinese national law does not generally apply in the region and Hong Kong is treated as a separate jurisdiction.
In March 2019, Hong Kong’s government introduced plans for changes to a legislation that would enable criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China. However, the bill received widespread criticism from many sectors of society concerned that it could undermine Hong Kong’s legal freedoms and might be used to intimidate or silence dissidents.
Beginning in early June, the people of Hong Kong repeatedly protested against the proposed extradition bill. Over a million people flooded the main streets on June 9, June 16 and August 18. Countless protests of smaller scale took place in other parts of Hong Kong. The Hong Kong police used tear gas and pepper spray, and in some instances, guns firing bean bags and rubber bullets to disperse protesters including those remaining peaceful.
On June 15, the Hong Kong government announced it would indefinitely suspend the bill. Then, on September 3, 2019, Hong Kong chief executive Carries Lam announced that the controversial extradition bill would be formally withdrawn. But the protesters demands have broadened to include an independent investigation into the police use of force, withdraw the label of “riot” for the anti-extradition bill protests, release any arrested anti-extradition bill protesters and do not pursue any charges on them, and universal suffrage for all Legislative Council members and the Chief Executive. The police inaction in face of violent counter-protesters, for instance unidentified individuals and alleged members of organized crime groups attacked by-standers and protesters indiscriminately in Yuen Long, in the New Territories area of Hong Kong on July 21, further intensified the dissatisfaction of protesters.
The Hong Kong police used the violent acts of a small group as a pretext to classify the largely peaceful protest as an unlawful assembly and specifically a “riot”. Amnesty International verified numerous incidents involving the dangerous use of rubber bullets, officers beating protesters who did not resist, aggressive tactics used by police to obstruct journalists on site, and the misuse of tear gas and pepper spray. By early August, police said they have fired 1,800 rounds of tear gas, 300 rubber bullets and 170 sponge grenades. More than 600 people have been arrested, while 44 people have been charged with “rioting”, which carries a maximum prison sentence of 10 years. There were also a few incidents of police shooting live ammunition at protestors.
While law enforcement officials must be able to carry out their duty to protect the public, violence directed at police does not give officers a green light to operate outside of international policing standards. The Hong Kong government’s actions against the protesters were violations of their human rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly and the right to a fair trial.
Amnesty International urges the Hong Kong police to adopt a less confrontational approach to demonstrations and facilitate the right to peaceful protest. While the formal withdrawal of the extradition bill is welcome, the withdrawal cannot change the fact that the Hong Kong authorities have chosen to suppress protests in a grossly unlawful way that has seriously damaged the people’s trust and sense of legitimacy of the government. Therefore, AI also calls for a thorough and independent investigation into unnecessary and excessive use of force by police at protests.
In addition, AIUSA lobbied the US government to ensure that export controls of crowd control equipment to Hong Kong from the US are reviewed to prevent their use in human rights abuses. On November 20, 2019, the House of Representatives passed S.2170, the PROTECT Hong Kong Act which would prohibit the issuance of licenses to export covered munition items such as tear gas, rubber bullets, water cannons and other items to the Hong Kong Police Force.
Prior to the passing of S.2170, the UK announced on June 25 that it would stop issuing licenses for crowd control equipment to Hong Kong until “concerns raised on human rights and fundamental freedoms have been thoroughly addressed.” On July 18, the EU Parliament adopted a resolution on the situation in Hong Kong calling for, among other measures: “the EU, its Member States and the international community to work towards the imposition of appropriate export control mechanisms to deny China, and in particular Hong Kong, access to technologies used to violate basic rights”.
Without a proper investigation into the conduct of police, Hong Kong risks becoming mired in a vicious cycle of protest and violence.