Seminar focuses on erosion of human rights in Hong Kong
Hong Kong’s Human Rights Meltdown, a seminar co-hosted by the Transnational Law Institute, King’s College London and the Hong Kong Studies Association, will bring together academic experts and practitioners, many of whom have personal experience of life in Hong Kong and , in some cases, involvement in recent litigation to defend human rights.
The seminar will coincide with the 20e Congress, which opens on October 16. The keynote speaker for the online event will be Professor Johannes Chan, Visiting Professor at University College London and former Chair of Public Law at the University of Hong Kong Law School. Honorary Senior Advisor in Hong Kong, Professor Chan has made seminal contributions to research and teaching of constitutional law in Hong Kong while upholding academic freedom and integrity in Hong Kong. He has also featured in a number of high-profile cases, including representing fellow Occupy movement co-founder Professor Benny Tai in his unsuccessful appeal against his conviction for ‘public nuisance’ offenses in relation to the protests. .
The seminar will also hear from Eric Lai, a former Hong Kong law fellow at Georgetown University Law Center, and currently a doctoral candidate in law at SOAS University of London; Linda Wong, lawyer in Hong Kong since 2002; and Professor Eva Pils, Professor of Law at King’s College London. The event will be chaired by Heidi Wang-Kaeding, senior lecturer in international relations at Keele University and co-founder of the Hong Kong Studies Association.
Hong Kong returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 with the idea of ”one country, two systems” enshrined in the China-UK treaty and reflected in Hong Kong’s “mini-constitution”, the Basic Law .
Professor Pils moved to Hong Kong in 2007 and worked at the Chinese University of Hong Kong until 2014: “The Basic Law meant, in essence, that Hong Kong would be able to retain the legal system that had been created under British colonial rule. It is important to note that although it was never a full democracy, the protection of human rights was strengthened and some democratic elements were introduced before the handover. Moreover, the Basic Law hinted, albeit vaguely, at the prospect of greater democratization or “universal suffrage”.
When I moved to Hong Kong, most people seemed surprisingly convinced that “one country, two systems” would work, not only for the 50 years “granted” in the Sino-British joint declaration, but, many expected, beyond – many believed that by 2047 mainland China would have transformed into a system closer to the global constitutional model, leaving Hong Kong free to continue on its own path of development. But by the time I left, things had started to change quite drastically.– Professor Eva Pils
The appointment of President Xi Jinping in late 2012 and the shift to a more autocratic approach on the Chinese mainland has raised human rights concerns in Hong Kong. On March 27, 2013, a new campaign, Occupy Central with Love and Peace, was launched. Student protests followed in 2014, in response to what were seen as negative reforms to the electoral system, with the Occupy movement also launching a campaign of civil disobedience. Those involved in these protests, which evolved into what is often called the umbrella movement, complained of harassment, and many key figures were subsequently imprisoned.
In 2017, President Xi spoke of a “red line” on protests in the territory which, if crossed, would lead to a strong response from China on the basis of “national security”.
Further mass protests followed from March 2019, in response to the Fugitive Offenders Amendment Bill, which sought the power to extradite locals to jurisdictions where no extradition treaty currently existed. , including the Chinese mainland. These protests multiplied over the next three months, partly in response to violent attempts to quell them. On June 16, 2019, up to 2 million people reportedly joined a peaceful march through Hong Kong.
Professor Pils: “The protests as such were not a surprise. You have to think what the proposed legislative change would have meant for the people of Hong Kong – in Hong Kong more than anywhere else, we were acutely aware of the major flaws in the criminal process in China. In my own work, I had learned from criminal defense attorneys how many obstacles there were to a fair trial – among them the sadly widespread use of torture.
Central authorities responded by imposing the National Security Law (NSL) on Hong Kong in June 2020.
The NSL fundamentally undermines the civil liberties hitherto protected in Hong Kong by creating four categories of what I believe should be described as crimes of political dissent. The law has also become the basis for institutional changes undermining Hong Kong’s judicial process. Since the enactment of the NSL, many members of the pro-democracy opposition have been investigated and criminally prosecuted, some under the strict provisions of the new law. Among other things, Hong Kong citizens have been prosecuted for simply using the slogan “Free Hong Kong”, for example. All in all, this triggered a dramatic decline in the political process and was also a huge blow to civil society in Hong Kong.– Professor Eva Pils
The seminar will also discuss the international response, including the recent report from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and examine economic, social and cultural rights in Hong Kong.
Professor Pils: “Hong Kong society has long been affected by great socio-economic inequalities and serious violations of socio-economic rights. I think it’s fair to say that even before the final turn for the worse, the courts in Hong Kong were somewhat reluctant to give effect to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. It was therefore all the more important that civil society organizations could work to improve the situation. There is no doubt that the repression of civil society in Hong Kong is having a negative effect on their ability to continue their work, and even to survive.