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Murky future for Human Rights NGOs in Hong Kong

November 05th, 2021
topics: Freedom of Expression
by: Sasha Kong
located in: China
tags: amnesty international, Hong Kong, protest

Human rights group Amnesty International has closed its 40-year-old office in Hong Kong at the end of October over the city’s oppression of dissidents.

The group’s other office in the former British colony - a regional operation on research, advocacy and campaigning work on East and Southeast Asia and the Pacific - will also shutter at the end of this year. 

Security Law cracks down on human rights advocacy

The city’s draconian national security law was cited as the main driver for the group’s unusual move. 

“[The law] has made it effectively impossible for human rights organisations in Hong Kong to work freely and without fear of serious reprisals from the government,” said Anjhula Mya Singh Bais, chair of Amnesty’s International Board, in a statement

The national security law criminalises any acts Beijing considers successive, subversive, terrorist and colluding with foreign forces. Close to 200 people have been arrested under the law after its implementation in June last year. They include pro-democracy politicians, activists and students with opposition voices. 

A year after the law took effect, Amnesty International said the law created “a human rights emergency.”

“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, in a statement

“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.”

Hong Kong leadership shirks responsibility 

The former British colony’s embattled leader denied that the city’s freedoms are threatened, but said organisations should abide by the law. 

“The freedom of association, the freedom of assembly, the freedom of speech and so on, are being guaranteed. No organisations should be worried about their legitimate operations in Hong Kong, but it has to be done in accordance with the law,” Carrie Lam said in a press conference on Tuesday. 

“The National Security Law's primary objective is not just to arrest people and punish people. It also has a very laudable objective to prevent and suppress. If there are individuals or organisations that have been using Hong Kong to spread news or to engage in activities that they are worried about because these activities are sort of undermining the national security of Hong Kong, then of course they would need to be worried.”

China’s mouthpiece, Global Times, called Amnesty International a group “with the intention of subverting power through Western values,” and “a dark history of interfering in the internal affairs of other countries under the pretext of human rights is widely criticised around the world.”

'A loss to the world'

Johnny Patterson, Policy Director of the Hong Kong Watch - a London-based organisation that monitors the city’s human rights situation - described Amnesty International’s decision as a “loss” to the world.

“Amnesty's decision to leave Hong Kong should be no surprise. The squeeze on civil society which has followed the passage of the National Security Law is comprehensive and touches everyone, including international NGOs,” Patterson told FairPlanet.

“The loss of one of the world's leading global human rights institutions from Hong Kong is, nonetheless, a sad reflection of the city's transition to authoritarianism."

NGOs forced to retreat

Amnesty International is among dozens of organisations that have either disbanded or dissolved under similar political pressure, with the most notable one belonging to Hong Kong Alliance in September, the organiser of an annual vigil that commemorated the killed pro-democracy protesters of the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre in China. 

The group’s leaders Albert Ho and Lee Cheuk-yan have been behind bars for being involved in anti-government protests in 2019, and were charged with inciting subversion under the national security law. Vice chairperson Chow Hang-tung, and three others members were also charged in early September, before the organisation voted on a motion to officially disband later in the same month. 

In September, Hong Kong’s largest teachers’ union disbanded after running for 47 years, after the government halted its cooperation with the union and called it “a political group” that encouraged students and teachers to engage in anti-government protests. 

In August, the organiser of the large-scale anti-extradition protests in 2019 - which later morphed into an anti-government movement without a sole organiser - shuttered, citing “unprecedented challenges”, after the group’s leader and secretary were arrested for national security and assembly-related charges.

In July, the police arrested five members of a speech therapist organisation on suspicion of “conspiring to publish seditious publications”, after the union published a series of children’s storybooks on the anti-government protests in 2019. The government later revoked the association’s registration, before a conviction was confirmed. 

Image by BG.

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Sasha Kong
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An Apple Daily journalist holds freshly-printed copies of the newspaper's last edition to be distributed to supporters gathered outside their office in Hong Kong. The pro-democracy tabloid was forced to close after 26 years under a sweeping new national security law.
© DANIEL SUEN/AFP via Getty Images
Pro-democracy activists from the League of Social Democrats hold a banner with political prisoners during a protest in the Wan Chai district in Hong Kong, China.
© Anthony Kwan/Getty Images
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