By Christy Choi with reporting from Joanna Chiu
Hong Kong (dpa) – Chief Executive CY Leung’s suggestion that he would consider removing Hong Kong as a signatory to an international torture convention has set off alarm bells among rights groups.
“Withdrawing from an international human rights treaty would set a disturbing precedent for the future of human rights in Hong Kong,” said Piya Muqit, executive director of the Justice Centre Hong Kong, which advocates for the rights of asylum seekers.
Leung said at a press conference after his annual policy address: “The question was about this issue plaguing Hong Kong, of some people arriving and getting involved in illegal activities. If necessary, we could do that [withdraw from the UN Convention against Torture].”
“Hong Kong is an open society … We have these agreements … but we don’t want any country to use Hong Kong’s open exit entry policy environment,” Leung continued.
“The timing of this comment, so closely after the Committee Against Torture’s review of Hong Kong in November, sends the wrong message to the international community about Hong Kong being an open society and a global city,” said Muqit.
Under the UN Convention Against Torture, Hong Kong has a legal obligation not to send back refugees who face torture or degrading treatment in their home countries. Some 158 countries are party to the convention.
But the city is facing difficulties in handling asylum seekers, many of whom are viewed by residents as economic migrants and not refugees facing persecution.
Leung’s comments come at a sensitive time when concerns loom over the future of human rights in Hong Kong.
Five booksellers printing controversial and often salacious books on the Communist Party remain missing. One is feared to have been kidnapped from Hong Kong which has an independent legal system to that of the mainland.
When asked for clarification on Leung’s statement at such a time, his press officer said that it was just “one of the considerations,” and “nothing concrete.”
Between 2015 and 2016 the government will spend an estimated 644 million Hong Kong dollars (83 million US dollars) on screening asylum claims, according to a government paper published in July.
In July 2014 – following the introduction in March of a new screening mechanism – refugee groups estimated the number of asylum seekers at 6,000.
In less than a year, the number of asylum seekers increased to just under 10,000, according to the government. This figure included some of the 6,000 applicants under the old system who were required to resubmit claims as part of the new process.
The latest figure from the government obtained by the Justice Centre showed there were about 9,000 claims still being processed in October 2015.
Pakistan, India and Vietnam have the highest proportion of claimants.
“If Hong Kong were to withdraw, it would join the ranks of repressive regimes such as Zimbabwe, Central African Republic and North Korea,” said Muqit.