The United Nations Human Rights Committee on Thursday began reviewing Hong Kong’s rights record for the first time since Beijing imposed its national security law, amid questions about whether groups making submissions to the meeting could fall foul of the legislation.

The Hong Kong delegation attending the United Nations Human Rights Committee meeting on July 7, 2022. Photo: United Nations, via video screenshot.

Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Erick Tsang and several other top officials attended the meeting in Geneva via video link. In his opening speech, which lasted just under 20 minutes, Tsang said the government had done much to protect human rights in Hong Kong.

“Safeguarding human rights and freedoms is a constitutional duty of the HKSAR government. The government attaches the utmost importance and it’s firmly committed to the protection of human rights, which has been upheld firmly and across the board by all our government bureaux and departments,” Tsang said.

Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Erick Tsang attending the United Nations Human Rights Committee meeting on July 7, 2022. Photo: United Nations, via video screenshot.

He also cited Chinese leader Xi Jinping as saying the One Country, Two Systems policy has been working well, adding it was recognised by 1.4 billion Chinese people and the international community.

Tsang said authorities further strengthened the system by introducing the national security law in June 2020 and an overhaul of the electoral system in 2021. He said these were necessary in the wake of the 2019 protests.

Photo: GovHK.

The demonstrations erupted in June 2019 over a since-axed extradition bill. They escalated into sometimes violent displays of dissent against police behaviour, amid calls for democracy and anger over Beijing’s encroachment of Hong Kong’s promised autonomy.

Overarching powers

Committee members, however, were not convinced the security law offered sufficient protections for people’s rights and freedoms.

“I note, honourable secretary, your comment about the events that precipitated this law, but I must observe that it was done overnight, without consultation, and bypassing the local legislature,” the committee’s vice chair Christopher Arif Bulkan said.

The Guyanese lawyer also asked Hong Kong officials whether civil society organisations (CSOs) taking part in the current review would be accused of violating the national security law (NSL).

“Can you provide assurances that the CSOs who participate here today, and over the next three days, are not in danger of prosecution or victimisation under the NSL, for such engagement?” Bulkan asked.

Christopher Arif Bulkan, vice-chair of the United Nations Human Rights Committee attending the meeting on July 7, 2022. Photo: United Nations, via video screenshot.

Another vice chair, Shuichi Furuya from Japan, expressed concern at the overarching nature and broad scope of the legislation. He said the committee had received reports about organisations overseas being requested by Hong Kong authorities to remove content that may be in violation of it.

By the end of the Thursday meeting, Hong Kong officials said the public’s rights and freedoms were protected, and enforcement of the security law would comply with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The meeting of the committee of 18 international experts will continue on Friday and next Tuesday, while a closing session will take place on July 22.

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Almond Li

Almond Li is a Hong Kong-based journalist who previously worked for Reuters and Happs TV as a freelancer, and as a reporter at Hong Kong International Business Channel, Citizen News and Commercial Radio Hong Kong. She earned her Masters in Journalism at the University of Southern California. She has an interest in LGBT+, mental health and environmental issues.