Amnesty International will close its Hong Kong offices by the end of the year, citing concerns for the safety of staff trying to operate under the national security law.
The decision, announced on Monday, will leave the city without the human rights organisation’s presence for the first time in 40 years.
In a statement, Amnesty said it would close its local office by the end of the month, while its regional headquarters will close before year’s end. Research, advocacy and campaign operations will be shifted to other Amnesty offices in the Asia-Pacific. The local office focuses on human rights education.
“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 organisations in Hong Kong to work freely and without fear of serious reprisals from the government,” said Dr Anjhula Mya Singh Bais, the chair of Amnesty’s international board.
“Hong Kong has long been an ideal regional base for international civil society organisations, 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.”
The national security law was introduced in June 2020 and broadly outlawed acts deemed to be crimes of foreign collusion, terrorism, secessionism and subversion. More than 150 people have been arrested under the law, and more than half of those charged.
Non-violent acts related to political speech form a dominant proportion of the reasons for those arrests, including the possession of pro-democracy or independence paraphernalia, or posting online. Dozens of activists, campaigners, politicians and former legislators and have been held in jail awaiting trial for charges related to the holding of an unofficial election primary last year. The law has targeted aspects of daily life from the school curriculum to public art, memorial museums and marathon attire.
The law has also been a factor in the closure of newspapers and arrests of staff, and the shutdown of political and civil society groups and arrests of their members. At least 35 civil society groups and unions have been forced to disband since the law’s introduction, including some of the city’s largest and longest-running ones.
The Hong Kong government has long refused requests for clearer definitions of how to operate under the law legally, particularly for journalists and advocacy groups, and instead has sought to further strengthen the laws and embarked upon a public-sector drive to ensure “patriots” govern the city.
“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,” said 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.”
During its 40 years in Hong Kong, Amnesty campaigned for the 1993 abolition of the death penalty and more recently conducted extensive research and advocacy related to the 2019 mass protests and subsequent crackdown by authorities. Dr Agnès Callamard, the global organisation’s secretary general, said Amnesty’s Hong Kong team had “shone a light on human rights violations in the darkest of days”.
In September 2019 the organisation warned of an “alarming pattern” of violence by police against protesters. Last month it said authorities were exercising “virtually unchecked investigative powers” under the national security law to pursue cases potentially unrelated to national security crimes.