The Hong Kong Protests: A Human Rights Perspective
Over the course of the Hong Kong protests against the Extradition Bill, there have been over 2,000 arrests, many of which have been unsubstantiated and accompanied by the use of excessive force by Hong Kong authorities.
Beginning in June of this year, protests broke out in Hong Kong against the proposed Extradition Bill. The bill, if passed, would allow mainland China to extradite fugitives from Hong Kong both to China, and to countries with which Hong Kong has no existing extradition agreement. The bill was put through following the discovery of a murder by a Hong Kong national of his pregnant girlfriend, prompting mainland China’s desire to extradite the man in order to press charges. Despite assurances that safeguards would be put in place to protect human rights in the face of the bill, Hong Kong residents, unconvinced, took to the streets to protest the passage of the Extradition Bill.
Concerns surrounding the possibility of mainland China being allowed to extradite fugitives from Hong Kong for political or commercial reasons, rather than for legitimate crimes, stacked up with concerns from other countries – the United States in particular – that China may use the law, were it to pass, to extradite American citizens passing through Hong Kong for fabricated reasons as a means for political gain. Additionally, given China’s past questionable conduct surrounding unfounded detentions and withheld rights to trial in court, there were concerns that the bill would only encourage more of these human rights abuses.
Following the initial protests, the bill was suspended indefinitely, and recently, was withdrawn entirely. However, protests continued following the large amounts of police violence and excessive force used against protestors. AmnestyInternational have identified Hong Kong authorities’ response to the protests as an infringement on human rights, calling the police violence and Extradition Bill ‘the latest manifestation of a steady erosion of human rights in Hong Kong.’ The use of excessive force by Hong Kong police has restricted the citizens’ rights to peaceful assembly and demonstration, a development which some worry is an attempt by mainland China at beginning to strip Hong Kong of its privileges under the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ agreement, which it has held since 1997.
Throughout the protests, in the last five months, Hong Kong police have released around 4,500 canisters of tear gas and fired over 1,800 rounds of rubber bullets at protestors. Not only that, Amnesty International field researchers have documented varied forms of human rights violations by police, including violent use of police batons, vague or false arrest charges, violence against protestors in police custody, and a lack of response by police to violent outbreaks between protestors and counter-protestors. These violations of international human rights standards are not the first to occur in China, as the violent response by police at the current protests closely mirrors that which occurred in 2014 during the Umbrella Movement, a movement which arose from the democracy protests for transparency in elections. During these protests, demonstrators began using umbrellas to shield themselves from the pepper spray police used in an attempt to forcefully remove them, causing the umbrella to become a symbol of peaceful protest. Clearly, both mainland China and Hong Kong are no strangers to both negligence and active violence infringing on protestors’ right to peacefully assemble.
Hong Kong Police, however, justify these events, arguing that the blame cannot be placed entirely on police as reports of protestors throwing bricks and petrol bombs at authorities, vandalising property, and committing arson, have surfaced, warranting counter-violence, which the police department has referred to as ‘minimum force’. But it is important to note that every protest in Hong Kong has begun peacefully, violence only breaking out as authorities begin clashing with demonstrators. Additionally, angry protestors have only been fuelled by attacks against pro-democracy individuals, as well as an announcement by Hong Kong’s government stating that no peaceful protests will be authorised moving forward. Despite the efforts to suppress protestors, there seems to be no end in sight as Hong Kong citizens continue to protest for their basic right to peacefully assemble. Although, these protests began as a public outcry against the Extradition Bill, they have transformed into a hundreds-of-thousands strong call for both mainland China and Hong Kong to answer for their repression and violation of human rights, including demands for amnesty for arrested protestors and ample investigation into the police brutality experienced by protestors. It remains to be seen whether mainland China and Hong Kong will respond to these demands, or whether this might mark the end of the privileges Hong Kong once enjoyed, independent of mainland China.