Amnesty International remains committed to speaking out about human rights in Hong Kong despite “shrinking space for dissent” in the city, the organisation’s new head has said.
In her first interview with regional media since taking up the role of secretary general of the human rights group last week, Agnes Callamard also said on Tuesday she was worried NGOs in Hong Kong would be placed under the same harsh scrutiny as those in mainland China following the adoption of a national security law last June.
“There is no doubt that NGOs will be equally the subject of that law and that the members of NGOs could be targeted in the same way academics have been or businesspeople or students or political leaders and so forth,” she said.
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Amnesty will release on Wednesday its annual review of human rights issues covering 149 countries, in which it says the national security law has led to a clampdown on freedom of expression in Hong Kong.
Callamard also revealed the group was taking “far more” precautions in carrying out its work than before and the option of moving its office out of Hong Kong was “still on the table”.
“We have been there for 40 years, so you can well imagine that leaving Hong Kong is a source of anguish, a source of pain in fact,” she said. “It is not a decision that will be taken lightly.”
In the past few months the space for dissent in the city had shrunk “to almost nothing,” but regardless of whether Amnesty remained, the group was committed to raising human rights issues in Hong Kong and the region, she said.
“Everybody is concerned about what they can say in and on Hong Kong. But it does not mean we don’t say it … We cannot be silent and we will not be silenced by the bully boy tactics of China.”
The London-based rights group does not have an office on the mainland.
On Beijing’s overhaul of Hong Kong’s electoral system, Callamard said the changes were aimed at ensuring only one kind of candidate and one kind of elected official existed in the city.
“This is the kind that Beijing agrees with and accepts and tolerates,” she said.
The National People’s Congress Standing Committee, the country’s top legislative body, approved a raft of controversial changes to the city’s political system last week. In one of the most far-reaching reforms, the Election Committee – originally tasked with picking the chief executive – will be expanded by 300 members to 1,500 and empowered to nominate all candidates for the legislature and elect 40 representatives of its own.
The number of directly elected seats in the Legislative Council was also slashed from 35 to 20, and anyone hoping to run must also be vetted by a new committee.
Critics have said the restructuring will keep most opposition figures out of the race, while the pro-establishment bloc has welcomed the shake-up as necessary to put Hong Kong back on the right track after the 2019 anti-government protests. In the aftermath of the often violent social unrest, Beijing imposed the national security law outlawing acts of subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces. Dozens of activists, including former opposition lawmakers, have since been arrested.
While freedom of expression was protected under the Basic Law, or mini-constitution, Callamard raised concerns about the suppression of the “rich outspoken public space culture” that had thrived in Hong Kong for decades.
“We have seen self-censorship reaching deeper and deeper into various sectors of society,” she said.
The human rights expert was previously the United Nations’ special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions and led the investigation into the murder of Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
Callamard said the situation in China’s far western region of Xinjiang was “one of the biggest human rights crises in the world at the moment,” and called for “unmitigated” access to the area so the UN could lead an independent investigation into the abuses.
Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, said last week the government would welcome such a visit and confirmed the UN and China were in talks – but stopped short of inviting an unrestricted investigation.
According to the UN, human rights groups and victim testimonials, China has placed at least 1 million Uygurs and other ethnic minorities in high security camps, where they are subjected to indoctrination, torture and forced labour.
Western governments have levelled sanctions against mainland officials for their role in the alleged abuses, while Beijing claims the camps are used for job training as part of a broader poverty alleviation effort.
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