China: Arrest of Human Rights Monitors in Breach of the Hong Kong Government’s International Human Rights Obligations | Joint Letter

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Photo credit: Amnesty


11 February 2020

Dear Chief Executive,

We, the undersigned human rights organizations, write to you in regard to the arrest of five human rights observers whilst conducting their work at assemblies in Hong Kong in November 2019 and January 2020. The arrests contravene the Hong Kong SAR government’s international human rights obligations to respect, protect and facilitate the legitimate work of human rights observers in monitoring all aspects of assemblies within the territory. We believe that the arrest of the five was arbitrary, since they only exercised their legitimate human rights work and that, therefore, the Hong Kong Police Force should immediately cease criminal investigations into all five in relation to their arrests whilst deployed as monitors, drop all charges and return all their personal belongings and monitoring equipment, undamaged and with comprehensive information whether and if so how these items have been used for evidence-gathering purposes in the meantime.

On 1 January 2020, 16 human rights observers of Civil Rights Observer (CRO) were deployed to record and monitor a procession and assembly organized by the Civil Human Rights Front. Three observers were arrested in Causeway Bay during police’s dispersal operation; together with a large crowd of citizens, they were detained outside the SOGO Department Store for around four hours until they were eventually informed they were to be arrested. They were arrested for “taking part in an unlawful assembly”, even though they explained their role and work to the police, had done nothing violent or unlawful and were wearing uniforms and cards clearly identifying them as “Human Rights Observer”. Police confiscated their clothes, observer uniforms, observer cards, protective gear, mobile phones and cameras which were used to document the Hong Kong Police Force’s actions.

On 17 November 2019, two members of Rights Exposure’s human rights observer team were
deployed in the vicinity of the Polytechnic University of Hong Kong to monitor the protests taking place there. When they tried to leave the area on the morning of 18 November, they were both arrested on “suspicion of participating in a riot”. This was despite the two explaining to the police their role, that the organization is legally registered in Hong Kong and that they had contacted the police in writing about their work back in August. The two were clearly identifiable as human rights observers, including by bi-lingual high visibility vests and work ID cards. The two observers had exclusively been engaged in monitoring the protest. When they were arrested the area was peaceful, with no protest, violent or otherwise, taking part nearby.

Under international law and standards, the Hong Kong SAR government and Hong Kong Police Force have an obligation to protect the rights of human rights observers. Such monitors play an important “watchdog” role, and it is in fact considered good practice for civil society to be able to carry out such work. This right is established under a number of international human rights standards, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Articles 19 and 21) that is incorporated into Hong Kong law through the Bill of Rights. These standards clearly express that, irrespective of whether an assembly is declared unlawful, is no longer peaceful, or is dispersed, that does not terminate the right of civil society groups to monitor it (see Annex). Observers should not be harassed, arrested or penalized as a result of their attendance at demonstrations. Confiscation and/or damaging or destruction of notes and visual or audio recording equipment without due process should be prohibited and punished.

At the time of their respective arrests, all five of the observers were wearing clothing and ID cards that clearly identified their role and the organizations they were working for. All of them were involved in conducting impartial and independent work, and at no time did they obstruct police operations. In addition, during the two separate incidents, each of the five observers were subjected to verbal abuse from police officers specifically in relation to their role as human rights observers. These events raise serious questions as to whether the Hong Kong SAR government and Hong Kong Police Force continue to honour their obligations on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly under international human rights law and standards, as well as Hong Kong law.

The signatories of this letter call on the Hong Kong government to:

  • Respect, protect and facilitate the right of human rights observers to monitor all aspects of assemblies, including to:
    • Publicly commit to upholding Hong Kong’s obligations under international law and standards in relation to the role of human rights observers;
    • Instruct all police officers deployed to assemblies that human rights observers have a right to conduct their work without being harassed or arrested, even when an assembly is declared “unlawful” or a “riot”;
    • Protect human rights observers and their property, from undue harm.
  •  Immediately cease the criminal investigations into the five human rights observers, drop all related charges and return all their belongings and equipment forthwith;
  • Establish a fully independent, impartial, effective and prompt investigation into the use of force by law enforcement during the Extradition Bill protests. This includes excessive use of force by police in the largely peaceful protest on 12 June and other instances, allegations of torture and other ill-treatment in detention and the treatment of journalists and other observers such as here.

Athan – Freedom of Expression Activist Organization
Cambodian Center for Human Rights
Chinese Human Rights Defenders
CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation
Forum Asia
Front Line Defenders
Hong Kong Watch
Human Rights in China
Human Rights Watch
INFORM Human Rights Documentation Centre
Judicial Reform Foundation
Justice and Peace Commission of the Hong Kong Catholic Diocese
Justice Centre
Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada
Maldivian Democracy Network
Open Data Hong Kong
The Leitner Center for International Law and Justice
The Rights Practice