HONG KONG SAR: Legitimate protests against threatened livelihoods and police responsibility to remain within legal parameters

The past two weeks saw Hong Kong become a theatre in which the conflict between free trade and human rights played out very visibly, with broadcast and other media conveying the interventions of all those involved in this conflict: namely, those inside the World Trade Organization (WTO) ministerial conference, and those outside on the streets. 

The WTO ministerial conference itself reflected the conflict. The thorniest issue amongst the delegates was when the agricultural subsidies in the world’s richest countries would end so that the world’s poorest countries may have access to more affluent markets. While there is an overwhelming conclusion that the issue of poverty in developing countries–where the majority of the world’s population lives–cannot be resolved without addressing this problem, the date for such a decision was postponed to 2013. As far as the WTO is concerned, the debate on human rights and free trade is therefore suspended until that time.

For those debaters who were on the streets, the WTO had little legitimacy to debate issues affecting their lives. These debaters comprised protesters from Hong Kong as well as many other countries, particularly neighboring Asian countries. Though small in number, those who gathered on the streets were determined to voice their arguments loudly and be noticed. The protesters included men and women, young and old, all of whom spent long hours braving the cold. 

The sympathy of the Hong Kong people was clearly with those on the streets. Not only were there no complaints of the city being unduly disturbed by protesters, but the Hong Kong community took sympathetic note of the arguments made by the protesters against those conducting their discourse in comfort. This in itself indicates the legitimacy of the cause fought in the streets. It also indicates that the Hong Kong population has an interest in the issues raised; the concerns of ordinary people in this relatively affluent Asian city are perhaps not so different from those in other places. The tolerance demonstrated by the Hong Kong people showed a politically mature population, who are well informed and aware of the key debates taking place in the global community.

At times when great social debates are fought fiercely, the work of law enforcement agencies is made more difficult. The management of a law abiding citizenry in normal times may be much easier. The task faced by the Hong Kong police was therefore not an enviable one. It is at such times however, that law enforcement agencies are tested.

In the absence of a willing dialogue between WTO delegates and members of social movements, the protesters were merely expressing their right to speak and be heard by those making decisions affecting their lives. Under these circumstances, the police’s job to maintain law and order is not easy and limited measures taken to control the situation and to ensure the protection of others, such as those participating in the WTO ministerial conference are understandable. All measures however, must be taken in accordance with the law. In particular, the use of force must be a proportionate response to the situation. The behavior of the Hong Kong police–particularly from the evening of December 17 to the morning of December 18–has raised many questions regarding principles of law enforcement. Was it legitimate to arrest over 900 persons when even according to police reports, only about 14 are considered to have violated Hong Kong law? Why were these persons kept in detention for such a lengthy period of time? It is the duty of the police to release persons in the shortest possible time after arrest. Concerns have been raised that the protesters–who had not violated any laws–were kept in detention to prevent them from participating in protests on the final day of the WTO meeting. This must be looked into by the authorities, as it constitutes a serious violation of the protesters’ fundamental rights to assembly and expression. While all violence on the part of any of the demonstrators must be condemned, it must be stressed that even in responding to such violence, the police are under obligation to act within the law. 

Other concerns raised by the protesters regarding police behavior–through the lodging of complaints–are as follows:

  • The police did not inform protesters the reason for their arrest or their rights as persons under arrest.
  • After their arrest, persons were kept on the streets for several hours. During this time they had no one to make complaints to or to seek permission to attend to any personal matter, including going to the toilet. The weather during this time was cold and they were not given any blankets.
  • Even after being taken to various police stations they were not clearly instructed about their situation and there was no facility for making complaints. The absence of interpreters made the situation much worse.
  • For detainees of foreign nationalities, there was no notification that they had the right to contact their respective consulates.
  • There were also no provisions for detainees to contact lawyers. While in some police stations there were displayed notices that persons are allowed to make telephone calls and even write emails, these facilities were never provided. Only two persons out of about 600 detainees questioned by some civil groups were allowed to call or email their families. Nor was there any attempt by the police to inform their families of their arrest.
  • Even requests for drinking water and medical facilities were not heeded.
  • Female detainees were body searched in the presence of male detainees. One female arrestee complained of being slapped when she resisted being handcuffed without being given any reason of arrest. Others complained that the contents of their bags were removed with force and intimidation. Several women also complained of having their hands tied when they used the toilets.
  • In many places the cells were overcrowded, resulting in further problems relating to toilets, drinking water and other basic facilities.

More complaints will likely come to the fore as the released protesters document their experiences. The stories being shared raise many fundamental questions regarding the legitimate behavior of law enforcement officers. There can be no excuse or justification for such behavior. 

The Asian Human Rights Commission joins other organizations in calling for a thorough and independent inquiry by the Hong Kong SAR government and Legislative Council into the police actions against the WTO protesters on December 17-18. The authorities must take the large number of complaints into serious consideration and explain to the public their position on these complaints. The Hong Kong people must also urge for inquiries to take place. 

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-132-2005
Countries : Hong Kong,
Issues : Administration of justice, Arbitrary arrest & detention,