National Security Law Threat Drives Amnesty International to Close Hong Kong Offices

On Monday, Amnesty International announced that it would leave Hong Kong by the end of the year, explaining that it is now “effectively impossible” for the NGO to continue operating under the National Security Law. Its departure from Hong Kong marks the exit of one of the most prominent international NGOs in the city, and is an ominous sign for what remains of the city’s civil society. 

The Hong Kong branch of Amnesty International consists of two offices, both of which are scheduled for closure. Dan Strumpf from the Wall Street Journal described the scope of Amnesty International’s work in its Hong Kong offices:

In Hong Kong, Amnesty focused on human-rights education, including providing classroom talks, promoting an annual human-rights-themed documentary film festival and co-sponsoring a regional journalism award.

A separate Amnesty office in Hong Kong worked on research and human-rights advocacy work across the region. Amnesty said it would close its local office by the end of October, and its regional office by the end of the year. It said the regional office’s work would continue from new locations but didn’t say where. More than 30 people worked for the organization’s two offices in Hong Kong, a spokesman said. [Source]

Tom Grundy from the Hong Kong Free Press reported that the threat of government reprisals for dissent was a major reason for Amnesty International’s departure

“This decision, made with a heavy heart, has been driven by Hong Kong’s national security law, which has made it effectively impossible for human rights organizations in Hong Kong to work freely and without fear of serious reprisals from the government,” said Anjhula Mya Singh Bais, chair of Amnesty’s board, in a Monday press release.

[…] “Hong Kong has long been an ideal regional base for international civil society organizations, but the recent targeting of local human rights and trade union groups signals an intensification of the authorities’ campaign to rid the city of all dissenting voices. It is increasingly difficult for us to keep operating in such an unstable environment.” [Source]

Al Jazeera added that the vagueness of the National Security Law has blurred the line between criminality and legality, to the detriment of Amnesty International and other NGOs in Hong Kong:

“The environment of repression and perpetual uncertainty created by the national security law makes it impossible to know what activities might lead to criminal sanctions. The law has repeatedly been used to target people who have upset the authorities for any number of reasons – from singing political songs to discussing human rights issues in the classroom,” said Amnesty’s Bais.

“The pattern of raids, arrests and prosecutions against perceived opponents has highlighted how the vagueness of the law can be manipulated to build a case against whomsoever the authorities choose.” [Source]

The blurred line has created a Catch-22 for many NGOs and opposition groups in Hong Kong: to avoid breaching the National Security Law (NSL), many organizations have disbanded, ceased their activities, or left Hong Kong, but the act of doing so may provide grounds for future prosecutions of their organizations under the very same law. This is the case for the Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF), whose activities were deemed to be in conflict with the NSL. Despite the group’s disbandment, authorities stated that CHRF would be “daydreaming” to think it could escape prosecution, and they began investigating it for rallies held before the law went into effect. This is also the case for the Hong Kong Democratic Party, whose participation in the upcoming elections would directly challenge the NSL, but whose potential election boycott “will possibly violate the Hong Kong national security law,” according to a prominent pro-Beijing establishment figure. Again, this seems to apply to Amnesty International, which decided to leave the city to avoid being targeted by the NSL. But as Laura Westbrook reported in the South China Morning Post, one establishment figure in Hong Kong attempted to spin the organization’s departure itself as a challenge to the NSL:

But lawmaker Holden Chow Ho-ding, vice-chairman of the pro-establishment Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, said he was “deeply disappointed” by Amnesty’s claim it was no longer able to work in the city without fear of official reprisal and called it “untrue”.

“It is outrageous for any organisation to smear the national security law by unnecessarily closing their branches here,” Chow said. [Source]

Amnesty International joins a long list of organizations that have disbanded or left the city to avoid being targeted under the National Security Law. Agence France-Presse reported that at least 50 civil society organizations have already done so, including human-rights-related organizations such as the Hong Kong Civil Human Rights Front, the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, and the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China. Human Rights Watch left Hong Kong after being penalized by China for U.S. legislation supporting Hong Kong protesters, according to the New York Times. Some organizations, such as the New School for Democracy, have relocated to Taiwan.

Zen Soo from the Associated Press cited a report by the Georgetown University Center for Asian Law which explained how the National Security Law makes it dangerous for NGOs considered “political” to liaise with local activists and groups:

In a June report, Georgetown University’s Center for Asian Law said the National Security Law mirrored legislation in mainland China that tightly restricts contacts between local and international non-governmental organizations and threatens activists with imprisonment for allegedly colluding with foreign forces.

“It’s disturbing — and contrary to international law — to see Hong Kong’s ‘national security’ law similarly strangle civil society and free speech in the territory,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch.

“The degree of surveillance and the National Security Law’s vague prohibitions makes contact between Hong Kong people and those outside the territory potentially subject to prosecution, such that information-sharing is impeded,” she said. [Source]

In a statement, Amnesty International’s Secretary General Agnes Callamard paid tribute to the organization’s accomplishments over the years:

“We are deeply indebted to Amnesty members and staff who over the last 40 years have worked tirelessly to protect human rights in and from Hong Kong. From successfully pushing for the full abolition of the death penalty in Hong Kong in 1993, to exposing evidence of excessive use of force by police during the 2019 mass protests, Amnesty in Hong Kong has shone a light on human rights violations in the darkest of days,” said Agnes Callamard, Secretary General of Amnesty International.

“In the wider region, our research and campaigning has tackled subjects including freedom of expression in North Korea, conscientious objection to military service in South Korea, the right to housing in Mongolia, Japan’s wartime atrocities against “comfort women”, and the crackdown on human rights lawyers in China.

“Moreover, Amnesty International Hong Kong’s education programmes – from classroom talks to a documentary film festival – have enhanced awareness of human rights not only in the city’s schools but among the general public as well. No one and no power can demolish that legacy.” [Source]

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