June 26 marks the UN International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. 

In its simplest form torture means any form of deliberate physical or mental punishment inflicted on someone by public officials, in order to force that person to say something or do something. Torture can take the form of physical violence such as rape, sexual servitude, sexual violence, electric shocks, burning, whipping, mutilations, water submersion, or psychological torture such as solitary confinement and intimidation or coercion during prolonged periods of interrogation that are designed to “break” a person, such as threats against family or loved ones. Victims of torture include men, women and children who have been tortured for their religion, race, gender, sexuality, or for simply expressing an opinion critical of the incumbent regime.

Torture illustration. Photo: Amnesty International.

The prohibition against torture has long been recognised as forming part of customary international law (i.e. a law that has become so fundamental that it requires no treaty and has become universally accepted in the eyes of the International community).  The prohibition against torture is one of the few non-derogable rights, a core right that may never be suspended, even during times of war, when national security is threatened, or during other public emergencies.

The prohibition against torture is enshrined in a number of international human rights instruments, the most comprehensive of which is the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (‘CAT’).  It is thus ironic that we mark this day at a time when several public figures and political parties in a place that has branded itself as ‘Asia’s World City’ are discussing withdrawing from this core human rights treaty.

Lam Wing-kee. Photo: HKFP.

These unprecedented calls for “quitting” a UN international convention are particularly troubling in light of the recent revelations by the Hong Kong bookseller Lam Wing-kee who alleges he experienced ‘psychological torture’ of being ‘in a state of fear’ and being made to confess under circumstances of ‘coercion’ during his detention by mainland authorities. We must remember that CAT is designed to protect not just those arriving in Hong Kong as protection claimants, but all residents of Hong Kong.

These calls to withdraw from CAT, which have been accompanied by suggestions to build detention camps have come just months after several concerns were raised by the Committee against Torture (the UN monitoring body for CAT, or ‘UN CAT’)) about how the Hong Kong Government is handling survivors of torture seeking protection. These included criticisms regarding the lengthy delays and an unduly high rate of rejections that have plagued the current government-administered process (known as the Unified Screening Mechanism, or USM) for screening torture and other asylum claims.  The acceptance rate in the USM is 0.6%, one of the lowest in the world.  UN CAT also criticised the Hong Kong government for its negative portrayal of claimants as “abusers” of the USM system.

Refugee dwellings in Hong Kong. Photo: HKFP.

In February 2016, the Hong Kong Government announced that it would conduct a comprehensive review of the USM.  However, the government has since shown no signs of consulting with the protection claimant population or with lawyers or civil society on this exercise. Instead, it has proposed diminishing access to the USM by tightening pre-arrival controls and screening procedures, strengthening immigration’s powers of detention, and expediting removal and enforcement.  None of the recommendations of UN CAT are reflected in the scope of the review.

Rather than choose to address the concerns raised by UN CAT the government has launched a fresh offensive on the very people seeking protection under the system. The government now uses the term “Non-Ethnic Chinese Illegal Immigrants” (‘NECIIs’) to describe protection claimants, and has disproportionately increased the number of references to crime in official policy documents discussing refugees.  Most recently, on June 7th and 11th 2106, at hearings in LegCo that were supposed to be a discussion of the UN CAT recommendations, ‘fake refugees’ ‘South Asians’ and ‘migrants’ (all terms that were used interchangeably) were labelled as ‘toxic tumours’, a ‘cancer to society’ and ‘homemade explosives’.  Some speakers referenced high profile crimes that it has been corroborated were not in fact committed by refugees

This negative discourse is being used in a deliberate and concerted fashion for politicking. It is fuelling derision, distrust and xenophobia among the local population in a bid to generate negative sentiments and play into fear-mongering ahead of elections. All of this ensures that the focus of scrutiny is diverted away from both the USM system itself, and from the more pressing issues facing Hong Kong society.

Photo: Dan Garrett.

There is no evidence to show crime is increasing (based on Justice Centre’s access to information requests). For example, in January 2015, there were a total of 95 arrests (the government will not disclose information on actual prosecutions and convictions) of so-called “Non-ethnic Chinese illegal immigrants” (not all of whom are claimants) and in January 2016, this figure was 84 arrests – a negligible proportion of overall crimes and an objective drop in numbers for this population.

And yet, media coverage on refugees and on crime has increased significantly.  A search result found that coverage in one major Chinese media newspaper alone increased its coverage of refugees by 880% from the whole of 2015 to the first half of 2016, and increased coverage of articles on refugees in relation to crime by 1,327%. This is vastly out of proportion to the increase in claims or the rate of crime.  It is hard to resist the inference that the rise in media articles associating refugees with crime is linked to the government’s increasing focus on crime in policy documents.

We are in an environment in which political discourse both in Hong Kong and abroad is dominated by the rhetoric of hate, derision, exclusion and racism. And where leaders scrambling for political legitimacy would rather stoke the fires of fear rather than unite to solve the world’s problems.  Fuelling racism serves only to deepen what divides us – to engender fear, derision and xenophobia, and binary ‘them and ‘us’ distinctions. This will only further detract from the real needs of survivors of torture.

Photo: HKFP.

The politics of hate needs to stop.  Reckless language makes for reckless politics.  It is a dangerous game and one not without potentially disastrous consequences as  history readily attests.  One only has to look to the expulsion of Christians from Mosul in Iraq, or the discrimination and segregation of the Muslim Rohingya in Burma as recent illustrations of this phenomenon.

There will always be claimants that do not qualify for international protection – all the more reason why the USM needs serious reforms to be transparent, fair, and efficient.  In particular, the Government should give sensitive consideration to the needs of torture survivors, including proper training to officers and personnel that handle their claims.  Civil society has a role to play in this exercise, and can offer the government guidance and assistance if only they would choose to engage.

These problems are complex, know no borders, and cannot be solved without strong moral leadership. Threatening to withdraw from international conventions that protect victims of torture and to throw all protection claimants into detention camps are not ‘solutions’, but would only further traumatise the most vulnerable protection claimants, including victims of torture – as a growing body of evidence from around the world shows. Detention has a high human and economic cost. Claiming protection is not a crime. And casting suspicion upon those who are seeking it will do nothing but exacerbate marginalisation and discrimination.

Why should Hong Kong people care?  It is perhaps worth reflecting on the sobering thought that no territory or person within it is ever immune from forces that are intent on harm.  In the words of the recently returned bookseller Lam Wing-Kee: “What happens to us may also happen to anybody.”

Justice Centre

Justice Centre Hong Kong consists of committed human rights advocates working fearlessly to protect the rights of Hong Kong’s most vulnerable forced migrants – refugees, other people seeking protection and survivors of modern slavery.