3 reasons to worry about the decision to ban the Hong Kong National Party

The unprecedented decision of the government of Hong Kong to use the Societies Ordinance to ban the Hong Kong National Party sets a dangerous precedent and is an unreasonable restriction on freedom of expression. The Societies Ordinance must be reformed to bring it in line with international human rights standards, and the Hong Kong government must prioritise reforming the law to protect the fundamental rights of freedom of expression and association.

Here is why:

1.       The Societies Ordinance breaches human rights

The Societies Ordinance places excessive restrictions on freedom of expression and association. The law is open to abuse due to its broad scope and vague terminology. The United Nations Committee on Human Rights are clear that any legislation which allows for national security to justify the limitation of freedom of expression must be precise and specific in explaining what constitutes a national security threat, and must not be overly broad so that it muzzles democracy.

The Societies Ordinance fails to provide guidelines as to what constitutes a ‘national security threat’, giving discretion to the Secretary of Security, the Societies Officer and the Police to interpret for themselves. This clearly contravenes the instruction from the United Nations that ‘a law may not confer unfettered discretion for the restriction of freedom of expression on those charged with its execution’ but must instead include specific guidelines. In this instance, the police are stating that innocuous activities including holding street booths, attempting to participate in the Legislative Council election, or giving press interviews, pose a ‘national security threat’. The broad powers of interpretation given to the police and government could pose a major threat to freedom of expression.

Recognising its flaws, the government of Hong Kong reformed the law in 1992 to bring it in line with international human rights standards. However, these changes were reversed in 1997 by the Provisional Legislative Council and the current law fails to meet Hong Kong’s commitments to uphold United Nations Human Rights standards in the Basic Law and the Sino-British Joint Declaration.  

2.       This decision sets a dangerous precedent

The use of the Societies Ordinance to ban a political party is unprecedented and could justify further constrictions on freedom of expression and other parties facing being banned based on the same unacceptable law which lacks transparency.

The banning of peaceful political parties on the basis that to hold certain opinions constitutes a ‘national security threat’ may also be designed to pave the way for punitive national security legislation under Article 23 which leads to further constrictions of the political sphere and freedom of expression.

3.       It is part of a wider campaign of lawfare against the political opposition in Hong Kong

The politicised use of the Societies Ordinance should not be seen in isolation. Since the Umbrella Movement of 2014, one in three pro-democracy legislators have been prosecuted by the government and more than 100 democracy activists and protestors have been prosecuted.

Loopholes in numerous outdated colonial-era laws are being abused to justify the prosecutions and excessive sentencing. Of concern are the Public Order Ordinance, Societies Ordinance and Public Nuisance laws. The vague terminology in this legislation, and the lack of transparency in the prosecution process, does not meet United Nations human rights standards. The laws should be amended.