"Now is the time” for the international community to put pressure on China to wind back recent infringements on human rights in Hong Kong, says Australia Director at Human Rights Watch (HRW) and adjunct lecturer at UNSW Law, Elaine Pearson.

“Now is the time to really step it up because the Chinese government has made it very clear that it will take action against Hong Kong citizens who try and stand up for their rights,” says Ms Pearson.

On June 30, the Chinese government passed and implemented the National Security Law in the former British colony, following months of increasingly violent protests and subsequent arrests of Hong Kong citizens.

Elaine Pearson

Elaine Pearson is Australia Director at Human Rights Watch (HRW) and adjunct lecturer at UNSW Law.

The protests erupted in mid-2019, following the proposed changes to the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance which would have seen the extradition of criminal suspects to the mainland to face Chinese law.

The bill prompted widespread criticism both in Hong Kong and abroad for its erosion of the autonomy of Hong Kong's legal system and its built-in safeguards.

The bill did not pass but has since become part of the new National Security Law, which is concerning in a number of ways as highlighted by Amnesty International, including the broad definition of the crimes of “secession”, “subversion”, “terrorism” and “collusion with foreign forces” that incur maximum penalties of life imprisonment.

“The passage of the National Security Law is basically the death-knell of the “one country two systems” arrangement,” Ms Pearson says. “This should not go unchallenged by governments.”

Ms Pearson says “the Act is extremely broad, and it criminalises a whole lot of activity, which would otherwise be lawful and unremarkable in most democracies”.

“It’s concerning because, especially in a place like Hong Kong, there have been all sorts of people protesting and speaking out. Now, all of a sudden, those people are subject to arrest, and potentially detention, with some likely to be transferred to the mainland.”

At the 44th UN Human Rights Council session, a group of 53 countries led by Cuba supported China’s move, while the more critical group of 27 nation-states, led by the UK, rejected the draconian new law.

Hong Kong violent protests tear gas

Police fire tear gas into protestors in Hong Kong. Image: Shutterstock

The establishment of a special envoy

Ms Pearson says the UN Secretary General needs to act to establish a special envoy to monitor the ongoing human rights concerns in Hong Kong.

“But that will only happen if there is that international pressure; concerned governments should be writing to the UN Secretary General and asking him to establish an envoy without delay,” she says. 

Nearly a month before the National Security Law was put into effect, four representatives from the Five Eyes foreign affairs intelligence alliance – Australia, UK, Canada and New Zealand (the US chair did not sign it) – wrote an open letter to the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, and their respective prime ministers, calling for a UN Special Envoy.

The group cited concerns over the “Chinese Communist Party’s record of abuses when faced with dissent to their rule”, and referenced the “legally binding agreement between the UK and China” that allows for freedoms for Hong Kongers. 

Ms Pearson says this was a “good first step but it should be backed up by governments making the same request to the UN Secretary General”.

“Appointing a UN special envoy is an important global response in monitoring and reporting on the impact and implementation of the National Security Law,” she says.

“The special envoy could also play a role engaging with Chinese authorities to minimise infringements on human rights. There are precedents, for instance then Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed a special envoy on Ukraine during the Crimea crisis in 2014.

Now is a pivotal moment to bring attention to the rapidly deteriorating situation in Hong Kong.”

Hong Kong Protests in 2019

About two million people gathered in the streets of Hong Kong in June 2019 to protest against the extradition bill. The demonstrations later became increasingly violent in the push back against Chinese imposed control from Beijing. Image: Shutterstock

International responses to the National Security Law

In response to the National Security Law, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK have suspended their extradition treaties with Hong Kong.

Australia has also increased the length of stay for Hong Kong visa holders to an extra five years, while the UK has extended its arms embargo on China “immediately and indefinitely”.

And in what the media is increasingly calling a ‘tit-for-tat’ spat, China retaliated by also suspending its extradition treaties with Australia, Canada and the UK.

Speculation has surfaced in the media that the US is preparing to follow suit.

Ms Pearson says Australia may be providing a safe haven to people from Hong Kong through this latest move, but it is “in a very limited way”. 

“I certainly think there's more scope for Australia to provide more humanitarian visas to people from Hong Kong,” she says. 

Foreign governments, including Australia, need to hold the Chinese government to account for what they are doing in Hong Kong, she says.

“Liberal democracies who are concerned about these extraordinary actions, that really fly in the face of Hong Kong’s basic law, need to call out the Chinese government for what they are doing.”

In preparation for 1 July 1997, when Britain officially handed Hong Kong back to China following a 99-year lease that began in 1898, then-British prime minister Margaret Thatcher signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984.

The declaration was intended to give Hong Kong semi-autonomous rule for 50 years until 2047 under the “one country, two systems” policy.

“The passage of the National Security Law is basically the death-knell of the “one country two systems” arrangement,” Ms Pearson says.

“This should not go unchallenged by governments.”

Rachel Gray