HONG KONG – Seven human rights experts affiliated with the U.N. raised concerns over Hong Kong’s new national security law in a letter addressed to Chinese authorities, saying the legislation limits certain fundamental freedoms.
The letter, released Friday, said the law raises a “serious risk” that rights such as freedom of expression and peaceful assembly may be infringed upon. It also highlighted the undermining of the independence of judges and lawyers in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory.
“We underscore that general assertions of conduct that threatens ‘national security’ without proper definitions and limitations may severely curtail civic space, the right to participate in public affairs, the rights of minorities and the work of human rights defenders and other civil society actors and their right to associate,” the human rights experts said in the letter, dated Sept. 1.
The experts are independent human rights monitors who work with the U.N. human rights office, including Fionnuala Ni Aolain, the U.N. special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism.
Beijing imposed the national security law on Hong Kong effective June 30 following anti-government protests in the territory last year against a now-withdrawn extradition bill which would have allowed some suspects to face trial in mainland China.
The security law makes secessionist, subversive, or terrorist activities illegal, as well as foreign intervention in the city’s internal affairs. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has insisted that it will help bring stability back to Hong Kong after months of unrest.
Critics say the law effectively ends the “one country, two systems” framework under which Hong Kong was promised a high degree of autonomy after it was passed from British to Chinese rule in 1997.
Chinese authorities are "obviously not happy with this review in the sense that they believe they are entirely entitled within their sovereign power to apply this law in Hong Kong without consequence,” Ni Aolain said in a phone interview.
China's foreign ministry said it “firmly opposes and completely rejects” the letter, calling it a serious violation of the authorization and code of conduct of the Special Procedures of the U.N. Human Rights Council — independent experts who report and advise on human rights.
“Certain individuals disregard facts and maliciously slander China’s human rights situation, openly politicize human rights issues, and grossly interfere in China’s internal affairs,” spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a regular news conference on Friday.
“We advise those concerned to truly respect the purposes and principles of the U.N. Charter, discard ignorance, prejudice and double standards, and stop interfering in Hong Kong affairs in any way,” she said.
The security law extends beyond Hong Kong, targeting anyone overseas who violates it, although it is not clear how it would be enforced. Suspects arrested in Hong Kong under the law could also be sent to mainland China to stand trial in exceptional circumstances.
The sweeping legislation has drawn criticism for stipulating that the destruction of government facilities and utilities will be considered subversive, while damaging public transportation facilities constitutes an act of terrorism.
In the 14-page letter, the experts called on China to address U.N. concerns, including the attempt to enforce “extra-territorial jurisdiction," to ensure that the law complies with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights treaty that China has signed.
The document sent by the U.N. experts is known as an “other letter,” a communication with governments that examines draft or existing legislation, policy or practice that is deemed out-of-step and noncompliant with international human rights norms.
The letter follows the first in-depth appraisal of the Hong Kong security law from the U.N. human rights system, though officials including U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet have previously expressed concerns about it.
Unlike other types of communications from the U.N. human rights system with governments, which remain confidential for nearly two months to give them time to respond, “other letters” give governments only two days' advance notice.
Keaten reported from Geneva.