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UN experts raised concerns over crackdown on trade unions’ rights in Hong Kong

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United Nations

Hong Kong’s National Security Law (NSL) and the crackdown on civil society were under the spotlight in the latest UN Human Rights Committee review on the city’s compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

The UN Human Rights Committee reviewed Hong Kong’s compliance with the ICCPR in Geneva, Switzerland, on July 7, 8, and 12 , 2022. It was the committee’s first review since the imposition of the NSL on June 30, 2020.

The committee collected a list of issues from the Hong Kong civil society back in June 2020. The Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) submitted a written report to the committee. HKCTU was disbanded in October 2021.

Five speech therapists case highlighted

Two years since the NSL was implemented, Hong Kong has experienced a significant deterioration in human rights. The Hong Kong authorities have relentlessly criminalized trade union activities under the pretext of “national security.”

At the time of the review in Geneva, five speech therapists were charged with sedition over a children’s books series they published under the name of their trade union, the General Union of Hong Kong Speech Therapists. They were remanded before trial for almost a year.

On the first day of the review, committee member Christopher Arif Bulkan raised questions about the case. He asked the Hong Kong authorities to explain how “harmless” actions such as publishing children’s books, clapping and shouting the slogan “Liberate Hong Kong” in the court room, and criticising the Government’s COVID measures can constitute threats to “national security.”

Committee members: NSL created a hostile environment for local unions

In the three-day review, the committee members highlighted that Hong Kong trade unions were scrutinised and accused of “colluding with foreign forces.” Committee member Carlos Gómez Martínez pointed out that the broad and vague definitions of “colluding with foreign forces” and “foreign agent” were hostile to local trade unions affiliated with unions outside Hong Kong. He asked the Hong Kong authorities to explain why trade unions were monitored and requested to hand in information on account of their affiliation.

Committee member Vasilka Sancin was also concerned that the Hong Kong authorities’ request for operation details from trade unions was a breach of the unions’ right to privacy. She asked the Hong Kong delegation to provide more information. Member Gómez Martínez also pressed the authorities to explain why the National Security Police and the Trade Union Registry targeted trade union’s affiliations and their funding applications from international unions. The trade unionists under investigation face the prospect of prosecution.

Gómez Martínez cited the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and pointed out that a large number of Hong Kong trade unions was disbanded in 2021, curtailing the right to association of the people in Hong Kong. However, the Hong Kong authorities declined to adopt the ILO’s recommendation to conduct a public consultation on the actual impact of the NSL. Gómez Martínez asked the Government to explain its decision.

The delegation from the Hong Kong government failed to answer the critical questions from the expert panel. The Deputy Secretary of the Hong Kong Security Bureau, Apollonia Lee, said that the government used the Sedition Law against the backdrop of Hong Kong’s massive Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill Movement in 2019. She described attempts to incite hatred and defiance against the Chinese and Hong Kong government in a “soft resistance” through media, culture, and art. Raymond Ho, the deputy commissioner of the Hong Kong Labour Department, maintained that the Hong Kong Trade Union Regulation provides protection for labourers who organise and participate in union activities. He added that trade unions have the liberty to join foreign union organisations. However, he failed to explain why one particular trade union was deregistered and many more were inspected and requested to submit internal information.

The committee will reconvene the meeting on July 22. They will discuss the review as well as the follow- up report. Hong Kong Labour Rights Monitor will continue facilitating the committee’s work

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