A protester plays a video of alleged police brutality as passengers arrive on the platform at Kowloon Tong MTR station, on August 21. The protesters’ five demands of the government include the setting up of an independent inquiry into police action against demonstrators. Photo: Reuters
by Piya Muqit
by Piya Muqit

Investigate Hong Kong police’s use of force against protesters, or risk tarnishing ‘Asia’s world city’ brand

  • Police action against protesters may already amount to torture and cruel or inhumane treatment, in contravention of UN rules Hong Kong signed up to
  • Continued rejection of demands for an independent inquiry will only intensify international scrutiny and damage the city’s reputation for strong rule of law
Torture is not a word usually associated with “Asia’s World City”, with its reputation for a strong rule of law. However, over the past two months, the whole world has witnessed unprecedented and excessive use of force by the Hong Kong police.
We gasped in horror as we witnessed tear gas launched from tall buildings onto crowds below, projectiles aimed at protesters and journalists, pepper balls fired at close range, and tear gas canisters fired into crowded, enclosed spaces. 

What we are seeing in this city may have already amounted to torture or cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment (CIDTP).

Torture is defined under the United Nations’ Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Treatment or Punishment as the intentional infliction of mental or physical pain by the state and its organs, which includes the police.

It is noteworthy that torture and cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment include non-custodial use of force, such as during arrest, stop and search, or crowd control operations. The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture published a report in 2017 focused on this, titled “Extra-custodial use of force and the prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment”.

The UN Convention Against Torture is applicable to Hong Kong. As such, the Hong Kong government is under a legal obligation to ensure that it does not torture and does not allow acts of torture to take place.
The fundamental right to be protected from torture or cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment is enshrined in one of Hong Kong’s constitutional documents, the Bill of Rights Ordinance.

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The prohibition of such acts is an absolute right, which means that there is no justification for torture. There can be no relaxation of the prohibition in any circumstances, including stress felt by law enforcement officials or the use of force by protesters. The right to be protected covers everyone in Hong Kong, irrespective of their immigration status and nationality.
In addition to the police’s excessive use of force, protesters’ inability to access medical care for fear of being arrested is also disconcerting. There are reports that victims are frightened to go to hospital to have their injuries tended to and documented; this consequently makes it more difficult for victims to seek redress in the future.

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Under Articles 13 and 14 of the UN convention, the Hong Kong government is legally obliged to ensure victims have the right to redress and rehabilitation, which includes legal, medical, psychological and social care support.

Under Article 12 of the convention, the Hong Kong government is obliged to establish prompt and impartial investigations whenever there are reasonable grounds to believe that an act of torture or cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment has been committed.

This means that, even in the absence of a formal complaint, the relevant authorities must undertake an impartial, effective, independent and thorough investigation as soon as they receive information indicating any instance of such acts.
The UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights has called for a state-led inquiry into police use of force. As an organisation that provides assistance and rehabilitation services to victims of torture and cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment, the Justice Centre echoes civil society’s persistent calls for an independent commission of inquiry to be established, and to ensure victims have meaningful access to justice and redress.
Rights groups and other activists highlight cases of excessive use of force by Hong Kong police and abuse of power against protesters, during a press conference in Mong Kok on June 24. Photo: Dickson Lee

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No one could have foreseen what has happened in Hong Kong. Civil society needs to continue to press for accountability and ask the Hong Kong government to act in accordance with domestic and international laws.
If the government continues to ignore these calls for accountability, international scrutiny will only increase, which will have a detrimental impact on Hong Kong’s economy and reputation as “Asia’s World City”.

Piya Muqit is the executive director of Justice Centre Hong Kong. She is an expert in torture rehabilitation with 20 years of experience in the sector