Rights NGO Amnesty International says it will close its Hong Kong offices by the end of 2021.

“This decision, made with a heavy heart, has been driven by Hong Kong’s national security law, which has made it effectively impossible for human rights organizations in Hong Kong to work freely and without fear of serious reprisals from the government,” said Anjhula Mya Singh Bais, chair of Amnesty’s board, in a Monday press release.

At an Amnesty International booth, protesters vote on which freedoms they are afraid of losing. Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

Its regional office – which carries out research, advocacy and campaigning work on East and Southeast Asia and the Pacific – will move to other offices in the Asia-Pacific region. A local membership section focused on human rights education in the city will cease work entirely.

“Hong Kong has long been an ideal regional base for international civil society organizations, but the recent targeting of local human rights and trade union groups signals an intensification of the authorities’ campaign to rid the city of all dissenting voices. It is increasingly difficult for us to keep operating in such an unstable environment.”

In June 2020, Beijing inserted national security legislation directly into Hong Kong’s mini-constitution – bypassing the local legislature – following a year of pro-democracy protests and unrest. It criminalised subversion, secession, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist acts, which were broadly defined to include disruption to transport and other infrastructure. The move gave police sweeping new powers, alarming democrats, civil society groups and trade partners, as such laws have been used broadly to silence and punish dissidents in China. However, the authorities say it has restored stability and peace to the city.

‘Impossible’ vagueness

Agnes Callamard, secretary general of Amnesty, paid tribute to members and staff who had worked for 40 years “to protect human rights in and from Hong Kong.”

She said the NGO had pushed for the full abolition of the death penalty in Hong Kong in 1993, and had exposed evidence of police misconduct during the 2019 pro-democracy protests and unrest: “There are difficult days ahead for human rights in Hong Kong, but Amnesty International will continue to stand with the people of Hong Kong. We will fight for their rights to be respected and we will be vigilant in our scrutiny of those who abuse them.”

Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Bais added that it was “impossible” to know what activities might lead to criminal sanctions in Hong Kong: “The pattern of raids, arrests and prosecutions against perceived opponents has highlighted how the vagueness of the law can be manipulated to build a case against whomsoever the authorities choose,” she said.

US NGO Human Rights Watch also left the city after its leadership was sanctioned by China, according to the New York Times.

Clarification 15:35: This article has been updated to clarify that the local membership section of Amnesty will cease operations, whilst its regional office will continue its work from abroad.

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Tom is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hong Kong Free Press. He has a BA in Communications & New Media from Leeds University and an MA in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong. He has contributed to the BBC, Euronews, Quartz, Global Post and others.