UK ministers threaten sanctions on Hong Kong officials

Patrick Wintour
Photograph: Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters

Foreign Office ministers have for the first time threatened to use new sanctions laws against individuals in Hong Kong found guilty of human rights abuses during the government’s efforts to suppress street protests.

The threat, picked up on social media by Hong Kong protesters, was made in a letter from the minister for Asia and the Pacific, Heather Wheeler, setting out the government’s response to the crisis.

She said the government would introduce human rights legislation allowing it to impose sanctions against people who commit serious human rights violations or abuses.

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It was known this legislation was in the pipeline, and critics claim it has been unduly delayed, but it is the first time a minister has suggested the laws could be used in the context of Hong Kong. As such, the letter represents the strongest sign of practical action being taken by the UK government apart from statements appealing for restraint on both sides.

Chris Whitehouse, an aide to the all-party parliamentary group on Hong Kong, said the Hong Kong chief executive, Carrie Lam, and senior Hong Kong police officers were obvious targets for potential use of the legislation.

“What is happening on the streets of Hong Kong is not policing going wrong. When police drive motorcycles into crowds of young protesters, they are intending to kill or maim. When they repeatedly beat protesters for four minutes, this is due to a policy from above. The Foreign Office has the means to identify the senior police officers.”

The Foreign Office has defended Lam largely because the UK fears that any successor appointed by the Chinese government would be even more repressive.

Ministers also hoped the violence would die down before elections due to be held in a fortnight’s time, but instead the violence has escalated.

Campaigners have claimed Downing Street is again considering changing the citizenship status of an estimated 170,000 holders of British national overseas passports in Hong Kong. The Foreign Office has denied the reports.

Human rights activists and some MPs have been pushing for a change for months, saying the UK has a duty to help the passport holders, who currently have the right to stay in the UK for up to six months but no automatic right to stay permanently or work.

Any such move would antagonise China and lead to protests about the anomaly of most Hong Kong citizens being excluded, especially the younger students leading the protests. The passports were created after Britain returned Hong Kong to Chinese rule in 1997 and issued to residents of the territory born before that date.

The call for the change has been led in parliament by the Tory chair of the foreign affairs select committee, Tom Tugendhat.