Riot police fire teargas to disperse protesters after thousands demonstrated in the main street to the financial Central district.

(New York) – Hong Kong authorities should avoid excessive use of force as pro-democracy protests continue, Human Rights Watch said today. Officials should immediately free anyone still detained for peacefully participating in demonstrations between September 27 and 29, 2014.

Police use of riot gear, pepper spray, tear gas, and police batons and the detention of peaceful protesters in recent days raise serious concerns about how the Hong Kong and Chinese governments will react to ongoing demonstrations in the territory.

“Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has to show the kind of tolerance for peaceful protest for which Hong Kong is known, not the intolerance that we see for it in the mainland,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “Hong Kong is known for respecting the rule of law and individual freedoms, and those rights cannot be sacrificed at times of political uncertainty.”

Human Rights Watch is concerned about police use of force given that the protesters appeared to pose no clear or imminent threat to public safety or property, nor have there been any reported instances of protesters threatening police. Some protesters shook police barriers and threw empty plastic bottles, but the protest otherwise remained entirely peaceful. Some video footage showed disturbing uses of pepper spray. One clip showed police tapping a protester on the shoulder, then sending pepper spray into his eyes at close range. Another showed police using pepper spray on a radio journalist who had displayed a journalist ID.

It is also unclear whether police took all the steps necessary before using force, or whether they gave protesters adequate warning or time to disperse before releasing pepper spray or tear gas. Some protesters told Human Rights Watch that they did not see or hear any warning before being hit with tear gas or pepper spray. Others said they saw the warning flags, but that the flags appeared only seconds before the police took action. In these instances, protesters panicked and moved backward. Protesters said they feared a stampede in the area crowded with other protesters. About three dozen protesters and police officers have suffered minor injuries.

In the past, Hong Kong police have handled far larger protests without using force. The escalation of force in response to peaceful protests brings into question Hong Kong police’s independence, as well as how the Hong Kong and Chinese governments will react to future protests.

Large numbers of protesters remain in major thoroughfares. On the morning of September 29, the Hong Kong government announced it would withdraw riot police and urged the protesters to leave.

While some protester action may warrant the use of force by police, international human rights standards limit the use of force to situations in which it is strictly necessary. The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms provide that law enforcement officials may only use force if other means remain ineffective or have no promise of achieving the intended result. When using force, law enforcement officials should exercise restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense and to the legitimate objective to be achieved. Hong Kong authorities should allow an independent review of police conduct in the demonstrations, and use maximum restraint in response to protests.

Police have arrested dozens of protesters, including 17-year-old student protest leader Joshua Wong, on suspicion of taking part in an “illegal assembly” and “forcible entry into government buildings,” among other charges. Police denied bail to Wong and held him for 40 hours until a judge ordered him released, stating that Wong was held for an “unreasonably long” time and that the extended detention was “unlawful.” While Wong was being held, police searched his home and took away his computer. Although most protesters have been released, the detentions appear designed to discourage involvement in the protests. Police similarly detained and released protesters after demonstrations in June and July.

The pro-democracy protests between September 26 and 28 did not conform to Hong Kong’s Public Order Ordinance, which requires organizers to notify police of demonstrations involving more than 30 people seven days in advance, and for organizers to get a “notice of no objection” from the government before proceeding. Yet this standard creates tension with international law. The United Nations Human Rights Committee, an international treaty body that monitors compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), has repeatedly expressed concerns that the ordinance “may facilitate excessive restriction” to the right to freedom of assembly.

“The protests in Hong Kong should show authorities that a harsh, uncompromising attitude on the issue of democracy provokes a serious backlash,” Richardson said. “The best way to restore order and popular confidence is to tolerate peaceful protest, and to take meaningful steps towards genuine democracy, as promised."


The Roots of the Protests

The Chinese government on August 31, 2014, rejected open nominations for Hong Kong’s chief executive despite treaty commitments to “universal suffrage” and “a high degree of autonomy” for the territory. In reaction, university and later secondary school students boycotted classes for a week, starting on September 22. As the boycott was ending on the evening of September 26, a group of students entered Civic Square, in front of the government headquarters, without permission. The square recently was closed to the public except by permit. Police surrounded the students and arrested them, using pepper spray on protesters who blocked police from entering the square.

In response to police treatment of the students, far larger numbers of people – about 50,000 – went to the area around Civic Square on September 27. Organizers of the pro-democracy movement “Occupy Central” then announced that they were officially launching their demonstrations and joined the protests. On September 28, Hong Kong police unilaterally declared the protest illegal. They also cordoned off the government headquarters grounds, barred protesters from entering the area, and declared that anyone found inside would be arrested.

This decision appeared to prompt thousands more protesters to gather in the Admiralty and Wanchai areas near government headquarters, demanding that police re-open the area. The protesters broke through police blockades and walked out onto the major thoroughfares between the two groups. Protests then spread to multiple locations, blocking roads in the Admiralty, Wanchai, Central, and Mongkok areas. Thousands of protesters remain in most of these locations.

Police used pepper spray again and tear gas and beat protesters with police batons on September 28. In a news conference, the Hong Kong police chief said the tear gas and pepper spray were used to “maintain safe distance” between protesters and police and that protesters had “charged the police cordon lines in a violent manner.” He said that if protesters did not disperse there would be injuries to both police officers and demonstrators. Prior to firing tear gas and pepper spray, police raised warning flags.

The 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, which spells out the terms for transfer of Hong Kong from British to Chinese control stipulates that Hong Kong shall have “a high degree of autonomy” in matters other than national defense and foreign policy, while the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s functional constitution, states that universal suffrage is the “ultimate aim” for the selection of the chief executive, the top leader, as well as members of the Legislative Council.

In recent years people in Hong Kong have expressed not only concerns about equal rights to vote and to run as candidates, but also about their ability to shape the public policies that directly affect their lives. Some believe Hong Kong’s leadership is increasingly adopting policies that reflect China’s interests while ignoring the opinions, needs, and rights of ordinary Hong Kong people. While pro-democracy political figures who have been critical of Chinese government policies have been popular with the public, they have limited ability to shape policies because the political system constrains their role in the government.

The current protests are a response to China’s decision on August 31 to impose a stringent screening mechanism that effectively bars candidates the central government in Beijing dislikes from nomination for chief executive.

A first round of “public consultation,” before the August 31 decision, resulted in the government conclusion that the “majority opinion” in Hong Kong favors a Beijing-controlled process for the chief executive elections. That is contrary to the strong desires for genuine democracy consistently expressed in Hong Kong in both independent public opinion polls and public protests.

The decision to impose an election process in which Beijing will retain control over the choice of candidates goes against the Basic Law, and prompted student activists and pro-democracy groups to threaten to block Central, Hong Kong’s main financial district.

The Hong Kong government is due to hold a second round of “public consultation” on political reform in October. It will then put its political reform plan to a vote by the semi-democratic Hong Kong legislature. Hong Kong’s pro-democracy legislators have vowed to veto the plan, which means the proposal is unlikely to pass.