Hong Kong has told a United Nations (UN) committee that the city’s trade union rights are “strong and intact as ever” as officials faced a grilling over the impact of the national security law on shrinking civil society and the “persecution” of journalists through the courts.
A 10-member delegation of top government officials appeared in person before UN experts in Geneva, Switzerland, on Thursday, where they were asked about freedom of association under the security law, as well as the “legal persecution of journalists and independent media.”
Michael Windfuhr, the rapporteur for China for the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, asked how Hong Kong could ensure that the security law would not be used as a “pretext to suppress civil society and severely undermine the… fulfilment of economic, social and cultural rights.”
“The committee has received information that after the enactment of the national security law, the civil society landscape of Hong Kong has changed,” Windfuhr said, adding that the city’s largest trade union – the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) – had shut down in the wake of the legislation.
A pro-democracy union coalition, the HKCTU said in September 2021 that it would disband due to threats to members’ safety. It was among dozens of organisations – including unions, churches, media groups and political parties – to dissolve after the security law came into force.
Windfuhr added that he was also made aware that the declining number of civil society groups was “worsening long-standing problems of discrimination against minorities and marginalised groups.”
In response, Simon Wong, the Principal Assistant Secretary of the Security Bureau, said “one should not speculate” about the reasons for the shutdown of trade unions.
“The freedom of association is guaranteed under the Basic Law,” Wong said, referring to Hong Kong’s mini constitution. “We should point out that the implementation of the national security law has reverted the chaotic situation and serious violence earlier and restored stability.”
Cheung Hoi-shan, Assistant Commissioner of the Labour Department, said Hong Kong’s trade union rights were “strong and intact as ever.”
Of the 176 trade unions that deregistered in 2021 and 2022, only one was deregistered by the government because its activities were “inconsistent with the trade union [objectives] or rules,” she said.
“One must draw a clear difference between legitimate trade union activities protected under our law and unlawful acts that have nothing to do with the exercise of trade union rights,” Cheung added.
The meeting also saw the discussion of rights issues relating to China and Macau, with delegates from both places present. The meeting will continue on Friday.
Beijing imposed the national security law on Hong Kong in June 2020 following months of protests over a controversial extradition bill that would have allowed the transfer of fugitives to stand trial in the mainland. While authorities have hailed the security legislation and said it restored stability to the city, activists and rights groups have said it has been weaponised to silence opposition voices.
As China is a signatory to the UN’s International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, China, Hong Kong and Macau officials are required to report to the committee every five years on rights issues.
Hong Kong officials met another UN body – the UN Human Rights Committee – last July to discuss its commitment to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. During the meeting, Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Erick Tsang said democracy had “taken a quantum leap forward” since Hong Kong, a former British colony, was returned to China in 1997.
Media crackdown ‘nothing to do’ with occupation
Separately, the Hong Kong delegates at the latest meeting were also questioned about the state of press freedom.
“What measures are being taken to end the legal persecution of journalists and independent media, which radically undermines their right to exercise their profession?” UN expert Ludovic Hennebel asked.
He cited the case of Jimmy Lai, the media mogul who founded the pro-democracy paper Apple Daily and is now awaiting trial under the security law. Apple Daily was shut down after the arrest of people linked to the outlet in 2021.
“Mr Lai… is a flagship case of this major problem but there are very many cases that have been reported,” Hennebel said.
Wong, of the Security Bureau, said all law enforcement actions are carried out “according to the law” and have “nothing to do with their occupation.”
‘Fear of reprisals’
Ahead of the meeting, civil society groups were asked to submit reports to the UN committee on topics of concern. Over 30 groups handed in reports, among them overseas-based NGOs Hong Kong Watch and Human Rights Watch, as well as local human rights law firm Daly & Associates and an NGO, the Society for Community Organisation.
Windfuhr said some of the groups said they faced difficulties in attending the meeting in person because they are “in fear of reprisals.” The UN expert asked the government to ensure that there would be no consequences for their participation, but the officials did not respond.
Pro-establishment groups, among them the Hong Kong and Mainland Legal Profession Association, the Yuen Long Youth Association and a committee under the Federation of Hong Kong and Kowloon Labour Unions, also submitted written material.
Besides politics, the UN committee also addressed concerns about the city’s foreign domestic workers, specifically what measures were being taken to regulate their working hours and provide “acceptable conditions.”
Cheung, from the Labour Department, did not respond to the question directly, saying only that the fact that there were 340,000 foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong was “itself [a testimony] to the comprehensive protection” that the government offers them.
She added that the government “appreciates the contribution of foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong.”
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