Lawmakers and civic leaders from 18 countries have urged Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor to set up an independent probe into police’s use of force in the ongoing protests, warning they would otherwise call for an inquiry at the international level.
Among 38 people who penned an open letter to the city leader were John Bercow, former speaker of the British House of Commons, Malcolm Rifkind, former British foreign secretary, Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, president of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences, Alissa Wahid, daughter of late Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid, and politicians from Australia, Canada, Ireland, Lithuania, and the United States.
They urged Lam to rethink the government’s position on the matter and listen to the demands of anti-government protesters, as they said they were “horrified” to see tear gas and pepper spray fired at demonstrators and bystanders in protests during the Christmas holiday.
Police have accused radical protesters of vandalising shops in malls across the city, where officers arrested more than 200 people for disturbances in various districts last week, driving the total arrest figure to 6,494 over seven months of political unrest.
“We appeal to you to use your authority and exercise your responsibility to seek genuine ways forward out of this crisis by addressing the grievances of Hong Kong people, bringing the Hong Kong Police Force under control, ensuring accountability and an end to impunity for serious violations of human rights, and beginning a process of democratic political reform,” the letter read.
They said though nothing could justify violence, a small section of protesters had become violent in desperation as the government refused to listen to them.
They urged the government to heed protesters’ demands by establishing an independent inquiry into police conduct during the protests, release those arrested for taking part in peaceful demonstrations, and consider political reform.
“Should you continue to reject this idea, we call on the international community to establish an international, independent inquiry mechanism,” they wrote.
They have not specified what form of international inquiry they supported.
In June 2020, the United Nations Human Rights Committee is expected to scrutinise Hong Kong’s compliance with human rights under the international treaty, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Some people have launched online petitions asking international courts to review the situation in Hong Kong. Any investigation, however, has to be triggered by a complaint from a sovereign state, the UN, or human rights bodies.
The signatories to the letter warned there could be other outcomes if the government failed to make concessions for protesters.
“Failure to seize this opportunity … may also result in even more vocal calls for targeted Magnitsky sanctions against officials in Hong Kong directly or indirectly responsible for human rights violations. It is our hope that you choose a path of constructive and meaningful reform which makes reconciliation and healing possible,” they said.
The group was referring to the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which allows the US government to sanction foreign government officials implicated in human rights abuses anywhere in the world.
In November, US President Donald Trump signed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act into law, which could pave the way for diplomatic action and economic sanctions against Hong Kong’s government for any conduct that may be perceived by the US to have violated Hongkongers’ rights and freedoms.
The European Union is drafting a similar law, while Australia is conducting a public consultation about it.
The Post has reached out to the Hong Kong government for a response.
After the withdrawal of the extradition bill, which would have allowed the transfer of fugitives to mainland China for trial, Lam has refused to make any further concessions to meet protesters’ other demands, which include the setting up of a judge-led commission of inquiry into police’s use of force.
Lam said the government would instead invite experts to join a review committee to examine the causes behind the unrest.
Meanwhile, the police watchdog – the Independent Police Complaints Council – is reviewing the force’s handling of protests and will release its first interim report in late January or early February.
Lam’s office on Tuesday refused to comment on whether it had received the interim report.
No government would tolerate such action or bow to such pressure
Hong Kong government spokesman
In a long statement released at about 1am on Wednesday, a government spokesman refuted the claims made in the open letter as unfounded and misguided.
“We are gravely concerned that the claims are biased and misleading. The HKSAR government must rebut them to ensure they truly understand the extent of violence by radical protesters and the attacks they have made on police and citizens.”
The spokesman said no protesters had been killed as a result of direct police action while 520 officers were injured, adding that the extent of students and minors being involved in such violent protests was particularly worrying.
He said police did not initiate actions against protesters and only responded with proportionate force consistent with international human rights standards.
The spokesman also rejected the suggestion of an international independent inquiry mechanism. “Such action, coupled with the threat of Magnitsky sanctions, would be a gross interference in Hong Kong’s governance and autonomy as well as the sovereignty of our nation.
“No government would tolerate such action or bow to such pressure.”
The Hong Kong government also defended the city’s freedoms, citing the extensive global media coverage which was “unprecedented” in the city’s history.
“That in itself is evidence enough that freedom of the press is well protected, and citizens of Hong Kong continue to enjoy the freedom of participating in lawful and peaceful demonstrations to express their views.”
More from South China Morning Post:
- Hong Kong protests: three people arrested for hitting man over the head with drain cover while he was clearing roadblocks
- Hong Kong rings in new year as muted celebrations give way to defiant anti-government protests