Among the gloomy news coming out of Hong Kong is a bright spot: on November 19, the Hong Kong High Court ruled that the government had violated its Bill of Rights by not providing an independent mechanism for complaints about police. Two days earlier, Professor Clifford Stott, an independent policing exert in the UK, published a report concluding that the indiscriminate use of force by the Hong Kong police escalated the 2019 protests. Stott had last year quit a panel appointed by the Hong Kong government to investigate police conduct, citing the body’s limited investigative powers.
These findings will come as no surprise to anyone who witnessed police brutality over six months of 2019. Police officers were seen beating, pepper-spraying and teargassing people, including those subdued on the ground; shooting and blinding several, including a journalist; unnecessarily tackling demonstrators to the ground, including pregnant women, children and older people; and then giving patently improbable and outright false explanations about their actions in press conferences.
No police officers alleged to have used excessive force during the 2019 protests have been held accountable. Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, still claims that the existing police complaints mechanism – one that is part of the Police Force – is adequate. Even more disturbing is that the Hong Kong police have taken on greater authority, obstructing efforts to hold them accountable by arbitrarily arresting people for uncovering police abuses and by restricting press freedom.
Hong Kong public opinion polls have consistently shown that over 80 percent of people support an independent commission of inquiry to look into police misconduct.
Beijing has intentionally misrepresented the protest movement as pro-independence to justify tightening its grip over the territory. But denying people’s real grievances seems to be further angering its residents, whose desires for democracy, justice, and accountability are only growing despite increased repression.
The Hong Kong government has not yet responded to the court ruling. Beijing will likely put even more pressure on Hong Kong’s judiciary, the last major state institution standing to protect people’s freedoms, to fall in line.
Resolving grievances will come from respecting human rights. Authorities should establish an independent commission of inquiry into the 2019 police brutality, create an independent body to investigate police misconduct more broadly, and respect – not trample – the human rights commitments under Hong Kong’s Bill of Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.