“Nobody should be subjected to administrative or criminal sanctions for taking part in a peaceful protest, even if the regime governing protests requires an authorization”, said the three Special Rapporteurs.
The experts – Clement Nyaletsossi Voule, Special Rapporteur on the right to peaceful assembly and association; David Kaye, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; and Mary Lawlor, Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders – act in their independent capacity to monitor country situations or thematic issues around the world.
Background to protests
The protests were initially sparked in 2019 as a reaction to proposed legislation, which would have allowed the extradition of criminal suspects to mainland China. At their height, nearly two million people took part in them, calling for more democratic participation in public affairs.
However, as the standoff between protesters and Hong Kong authorities continued, the number of violent clashes between the police and individuals grew.
High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet expressed her concern over the escalation of violence in August 2019, calling on authorities and the people of Hong Kong to engage in an open and inclusive dialogue aimed at peacefully resolving their differences. The experts expressed their concern in a September 2019 press release.
The 15 leading pro-democracy activists were arrested in April 2020 and have been charged with various counts of assisting in the organization of “unauthorized” assemblies, or participation in them. Some have also been charged with announcing “unauthorized” marches.
“The charges were filed at a time when protests are restricted for COVID-19 prevention. The persons charged are all leading figures in the pro-democracy movement”, the experts said.
Their trial is due to begin in the former British colony – that was returned to China in 1997 on the principle of “one country, two systems” – on 18 May.
‘Chilling effect’ of arrests
The charges were brought under Hong Kong’s Public Order Ordinance, which establishes an authorization process for assemblies, contrary to international human rights standards, the UN experts say. “We fear the chilling effect these arrests aim to have on peaceful protests in Hong Kong”, they added.
Further, the experts said authorities are obligated not to criminalize peaceful protesters or prosecute organizers for acts of violence committed by individual participants. They called for a review of the Public Order Ordinance in line with international human rights standards.
The Special Rapporteurs, Independent Experts and Working Groups are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. They are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.