U.N. experts decry Hong Kong security law in open letter to China

GENEVA (Reuters) - U.N. human rights experts have told China a new security law for Hong Kong “infringes on certain fundamental rights” and voiced concerns that it could be used to prosecute political activists in the former British colony.

FILE PHOTO: The Chinese and Hong Kong flags flutter at the office of the Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, ahead of a news conference held by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, in Beijing, China June 3, 2020. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

In a rare joint letter made public on Friday, 48 hours after it was sent to the Chinese government, they also said provisions of the new law appear to undermine the independence of Hong Kong’s judges and lawyers, and the right to freedom of expression.

“This is the first comprehensive U.N. assessment of the law,” Fionnuala Ni Aolain, U.N. special rapporteur on protecting human rights while countering terrorism, told Reuters.

“It’s the first assessment and legal analysis of whether or not China is in compliance with international human rights obligations. And it’s not, in (our) view,” she said.

Chinese authorities have acknowledged receipt of the letter, she added.

The “open letter” examined the national security law imposed in Hong Kong on June 30, which had already drawn U.N. criticism before its adoption.

The law allows for anything China views as subversive or secessionist or as terrorism or collusion with foreign forces to be punished with up to life in prison. Authorities in Beijing and the financial centre have said the law is necessary to ensure Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity.

Critics say the legislation further erodes the wide-ranging freedoms promised to Hong Kong on its return to Chinese rule in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” agreement.

At that time, China agreed to uphold the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in Hong Kong - a landmark treaty that it has signed but has not ratified for the mainland.

“There is an explicit set of higher obligations incumbent on China in Hong Kong in relation to rights like expression, assembly, fair trials that it doesn’t have for obvious reasons in mainland China, but it does for Hong Kong,” Ni Aolain said.

“It’s no longer theoretical,” she said.

The 14-page letter, signed by seven U.N. experts, did not contain comments on individual cases or arrests made under the new law.

The seven instead voiced concern that the legislation “lacks precision in key respects, (and) infringes on certain fundamental rights”.

The law “should not be used to restrict or limit protected fundamental freedoms, including the rights to opinion, expression, and of peaceful assembly,” they said.

The group also expressed concern that “many legitimate activities” of human rights defenders in Hong Kong would be redefined as illegal under the broad definitions.

“A person might not know if an action that they take would put them into the category of being subversive,” Ni Aolain said.

Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Anne Marie Roantree, Gerry Doyle and Hugh Lawson