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UN watchdog faults Hong Kong on reforms

A United Nations rights watchdog on Thursday pressed Hong Kong to enact democratic reforms, saying moves so far fell short of what was needed.

[GENEVA] A United Nations rights watchdog on Thursday pressed Hong Kong to enact democratic reforms, saying moves so far fell short of what was needed.

Amid weeks of pro-democracy protests in the semi-autonomous Chinese city, the UN Human Rights Committee said Hong Kong had failed to properly heed its calls for genuine change.

"We have received a response, but from the response it appears that no actions have been taken that implement our recommendation," said committee member Cornelis Flinterman, a Dutch human rights expert.

The committee has no power to sanction governments but its rulings carry moral weight. The body oversees global rules on civil and political rights, and submits governments to regular reviews.

Hong Kong's turn came in 2013, when the committee urged it to "take all necessary measures to implement universal and equal suffrage" and gave it a year to report back.

Hong Kong told the committee that it could grant equal voting rights in time for its 2017 chief executive elections and for the 2020 elections to its legislative council.

But the UN panel criticised the "lack of a clear plan to institute universal suffrage and to ensure the right of all persons to vote and to stand for election without unreasonable limitations".

Hopes for genuine democracy in the former British colony were dashed in August when China ruled that candidates for the 2017 election would be chosen by a pro-Beijing committee.

The vote will mark the first direct election for the post of Hong Kong chief executive, and activists want the public to have the right to nominate candidates.

They claim vetting by a loyalist committee will create a "fake democracy", with only pro-Beijing candidates able to run, and have taken to the streets of the Asian financial and trading hub.

Law Yuk Kai, head of the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor, hailed the UN panel's stance.

"I hope the message will be clear to the Hong Kong government that the world is watching," he told reporters in Geneva.

"Hong Kong's genie is out of the bottle. It's very difficult to put it back," he said.

The activists also want fully-free elections to the legislative council.

Under a system brought in by Britain in 1991, seven years before the city was returned to China, only half of its members are elected freely.

Hong Kong Democratic Party chair Emily Lau, a councillor since 1991, blamed Britain for failing to allow sweeping reforms when it was in charge and urged London to be more vocal in the crisis.

"We understand that many people want to do business with China, and they are afraid to upset Beijing. But many people also believe in democracy and human rights," she told reporters in Geneva.

The city's Beijing-backed leaders have been trying to defuse the mass protests and held their first meetings with student leaders on Tuesday.

But the students have accused the government of failing to make any meaningful offers to end weeks of unrest.

The negotiations have been seen as the only way to end nearly a month of protests without a police crackdown or further violence.

"It's a touch and go situation," said Lau. "The whole world is watching Hong Kong." If talks are abandoned, many fear a return to the trouble seen last week when dozens were injured after demonstrators battled police as they tried to clear barriers.

There have also been confrontations between protesters and residents fed up with the blockades of several main roads.

Polls however have shown support for the democracy movement, also known as the "umbrella movement", rising from 31 per cent to almost 38 per cent in recent weeks.