Law & Crime Opinion Politics & Protest

Too little, too late: It’s time to freeze the sale of crowd control equipment to Hong Kong police

This week, after months of protest, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam finally withdrew the controversial extradition bill largely responsible for sparking a months-long resistance. For movement leaders like Joshua Wong and others the announcement came as too little, too late, especially following intensified police brutality.

Recent bloody and chaotic scenes inside Prince Edward MTR station depict rampaging police discharging pepper spray inside subway cars, beating people, and blocking medics from tending to the wounded. This follows weeks of escalation in the indiscriminate and excessive use of police force, including physical assault, extensive use of tear gas, rubber bullets, and bean bag rounds, and even reports of sexual assault during police detention.

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Photo: May James/HKFP.Admittedly, some protestors have been violent, and police have been wounded, but the police have an obligation under international norms to observe proportionality and only deploy the use of force under strict circumstances. Instead, police have breached these standards with impunity.

This is why protesters’ demands have included an independent commission of inquiry into police conduct, but Carrie Lam has continually insisted that any investigations will be conducted by the existing Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC), which is far from independent or impartial.

If Carrie Lam refuses her obligations to hold police accountable then it is time for an international response to Hong Kong police brutality.

Indiscriminate and excessive

Somewhat euphemistically, tear gas, rubber bullets, and related crime control equipment are often called “less-lethal weapons,” but they can inflict serious injury and death when deployed wantonly.

Since protesting began in June, Hong Kong police have fired thousands of rounds of tear gas and rubber bullets in ways that have repeatedly violated international norms. This includes firing tear gas canisters from elevated positions or directly at protestors from close range, which can both be lethal. From tall buildings or hidden positions, it is also impossible for the police to determine who they are firing at, the definition of indiscriminate.

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Riot police fire tear gas rounds into the air outside the government’s headquarters. Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

Discharging tear gas indoors, as the Hong Kong police have done, poses serious health risks and causes panic and confusion, escalation that can turn bystanders into targets and multiplies the risk of injury.

The United Nations Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials is clear that police use of force must be strictly necessary and proportionate. The International Committee of the Red Cross even notes that at unlawful but peaceful assemblies police should refrain from actions likely to lead to an escalation in the risk of injury or death. Actions by the Hong Kong police violate such standards and constitute human rights violations.

Because of this, earlier in August, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement pointing to the unsanctioned use of such less-lethal weapons and calling on Hong Kong to investigate police use of force.

The Chinese Government characteristically rejected the statement as interference in its domestic affairs.

But international law clearly establishes the right to remedy, which often begins with effective and independent investigation. This is why so many in Hong Kong and the international human rights community have been calling for the establishment of an independent commission of inquiry into the use of force by the Hong Kong police. Carrie Lam has consistently rebuked such demands.

Existing complaints mechanisms in Hong Kong, the IPCC and the Complaints Against Police Office (CAPO), as the United Nations Human Rights Committee has held, have limited powers and lack independence. As long as no effective domestic mechanism exists, there are steps the international community could take to hold Hong Kong police accountable now.

In June, Britain’s Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt announced that the UK was suspending sales of crowd control equipment to Hong Kong pending a commission of inquiry, arguably in another case of too little, too late.

Less-lethal weapons from multiple countries have been deployed against Hong Kong residence and it is time for a global moratorium.

Towards a Global Moratorium

FactWire, a Hong Kong-based news agency, has documented many of the less-lethal weapons used by Hong Kong police and their corporate countries of origin. For example, police have used Swiss-made handheld pepper spray from IDC System AG, Czech-made riot shields from Euro Security Products (ESP), American-made tear gas canisters from NonLethal Technologies, and Remington 870 Shotguns from Remington Arms Company to deploy Rubber bullets and rockets manufactured by AMTEC Less-Lethal Systems, among others.

The OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises call on businesses to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts linked to their operations, products, or services. As such, these companies have a duty to denounce the indiscriminate and excessive use of their technologies by Hong Kong police and freeze commercial activities.

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Tear gas and rubber bullet munitions used by riot police in Causeway Bay. Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

Following the UK’s example, the United States, as a major source country, should impose an immediate export license ban on all “crime control and detection instruments and equipment” to Hong Kong such as has been suggested by Representative Jim McGovern. A similar export license ban has been in place for such technology sales to Mainland China since 1989, known as the “Tiananmen Sanctions” and an expansion is long overdue. But this is about more than just American or British companies selling gear to Hong Kong and these bans should go global.

A global moratorium, supported by businesses and States alike, would send a strong signal to the people of Hong Kong, especially in light of refusals to convene an independent investigation, that police brutality against those exercising their rights will not be tolerated.

Too little, too late: It's time to freeze the sale of crowd control equipment to Hong Kong police