The Violence Must Stop – Abuse of Police Power in Hong Kong’s Democracy Protests

by | Sep 30, 2014

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About Mathias Cheung

Mathias Cheung is a barrister at Atkin Chambers in London and a BCL graduate from Magdalen College. He has a strong interest in constitutional law, human rights and comparative public law.


Mathias Cheung, “The Violence Must Stop – Abuse of Police Power in Hong Kong’s Democracy Protests,” (OxHRH Blog, 30 September 2014) <> [date of access].

In ruling out genuine choice in all future Chief Executive elections in Hong Kong, the Government has done violence to democracy. Now, the Government is doing violence to peaceful protesters in dispersing them.

In defiance of the undemocratic decision by Beijing on 31 August, pan-democrats have vowed to launch the Occupy Central with Love and Peace movement. Students took to the frontlines last week by organising a classroom boycott that culminated in a peaceful assembly outside the Government Headquarters. Occupy Central officially began as the crowds surged and the police started cracking down on the protesters.

I have written earlier that the rule of law ought to protect such peaceful assemblies. Sadly, as tens of thousands assemble peacefully on the streets of various districts, riot police have been deployed to disperse the crowds violently. They have decided to fight peace with violence by unlawfully employing:

Appalling scenes and footage of police violence have been spawned across social media. Even the elderly were not spared, pepper-sprayed at point blank range. Have they forgotten that “measures of crowd control should not be used by the national authorities directly or indirectly to stifle or discourage protest” (Austin v UK [2012] ECHR 459 [68])?

The police’s conduct is a blatant violation of international human rights law. The peaceful protesters enjoy the fundamental right to life and right of peaceful assembly, protected by Articles 6 and 21 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights as incorporated by the Basic Law. Article 2 of the UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials requires the police to protect human rights, and under Article 3 they “may use force only when strictly necessary”.

Unlike the riots of 1967, it is simply unnecessary, disproportionate and unlawful to repeatedly use pepper spray and tear gas to restrict the rights of peaceful, unarmed protesters. Principle 13 of the Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials provides that “in the dispersal of assemblies that are unlawful but non-violent, law enforcement officials shall avoid the use of force”. Indeed, the State has a “duty to facilitate peaceful assemblies”, with “a presumption against limitations on assemblies” (Report of the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns [119]).

As emphasised in Understanding Policing at p.131, “non-lethal” riot control devices “can result in serious injury and even death”. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, Margaret Sekaggya, has rightly criticised “violent means to disperse peaceful protesters”, as “this conduct violates the Government’s responsibility to protect civil society actors”.

The violence must stop. The acquiescence of the international community must also stop. As the Director of Amnesty International Hong Kong rightly pointed out, we are looking at “a violation of international law”. The UN Human Rights Committee must act. Meanwhile, let every police officer know this: obedience to superior orders shall be no defence” (Principle 26 of the Basic Principles).The real law-breaker is the one who attacks peaceful citizens, and it is in times like these that the law must protect the people from abuse.

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