Saturday

18th Jan 2020

Opinion

Watershed moment for rule of law in Hong Kong

  • Protests in Hong Kong. 'This isn't policing, its an act of war perpetrated by heavily armed officers against largely unarmed protestors inside the university' (Photo: etan liam)

As I write, there's thought to be around 100 pro-democracy protesters still left trapped in the Polytechnic University in Hong Kong.

More than 1,000 people, mostly students, are in custody, and hundreds of school students who participated in the demonstrations and had their details taken, face an uncertain future.

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I think of the young climate strikers I meet from across Europe and beyond - this is the same generation, also making a claim for its future. I admire their courage - in the face of the fear that the name Tiananmen Square invokes and their knowledge of the brutal, unjust treatment of China's Uighur minority - and worry greatly for them.

What they have faced in Hong Kong was unconscionable: in one day alone (18 November), Hong Kong police force officers attacking the Polytechnic University fired 1,458 canisters of tear gas, 1,392 rubber bullets, 325 bean bag rounds and 265 sponge bullets against young students.

This isn't policing, its an act of war perpetrated by heavily armed officers against largely unarmed protestors inside the university where, above all, freedom of speech and association should be sacrosanct.

Also on Monday (18 November) an even more profound development occurred, one that threatens the very future of the system in Hong Kong.

The Hong Kong High Court rightly issued a judgement that chief executive Carrie Lam's use of anachronistic colonial-era emergency legislation, to ban the wearing of face masks, was unconstitutional.

The judgement should have been accepted by the Hong Kong government, and their acceptance would have been a positive sign that the rule of law continues to be important to them.

But in what could be the one of the biggest watershed moments in recent legal history, the Chinese National People's Congress (NPC) issued a statement that essentially said that only they, and not the local courts, have the power to interpret the Hong Kong constitution.

Their statement said: "Whether HK's legislation is consistent with the HK Basic Law can only be judged and decided by the National People's Congress standing committee. No other parties can judge or decide."

This is a clear breach of the handover agreement between Britain and China, which enshrined the autonomy of the Hong Kong courts and their authority to issue judgements on constitutional matters.

Article 3 of the Sino-British joint declaration states that: "The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region will be vested with executive, legislative and independent judicial power, including that of final adjudication."

If the NPC statement is a statement of Chinese government policy, it will be a clear breach of this provision.

International law ignored

A rubicon is being crossed by the Chinese government. It is signalling to the world that it is no longer bound by international law.

Without the rule of law, Hong Kong as we have known it (as I saw created while covering the handover for the Bangkok Post) is finished.

The only proper response is for the EU and the United Kingdom to stand four square behind the people of Hong Kong in their defence of human rights including those of free speech, freedom of association and democratic participation.

The European Union has been more outspoken in defence of the people of Hong Kong, I'm ashamed to say, than the British government, despite Britain being the only other party, besides China, to the Sino-British Declaration on Hong Kong.

That declaration is the internationally binding treaty, lodged with the United Nations, that establishes Hong Kong's basic laws and the principles of free speech, universal franchise and freedom of association.

EU lunch

On Thursday (21 November), the EU Foreign Affairs Council sits down for a discussion on trade with China.

Whilst the ministers from 27 government enjoy lunch, Hong Kong will continue to burn, quite literally. Protestors are being savagely beaten and arrested, and then shipped off in buses and on trains to who knows where for violent interrogation. (And every Hong Konger - quite astonishingly the Economist reports that 88 percent of residents have been exposed to tear gas by the administration's actions.)

On behalf of the people of Hong Kong, who have no voice of their own, we can only ask that our ministers make it quite clear that respect for human rights must be integrated into future trade arrangements with China.

We have seen unarmed protestors in Hong Kong shot at point blank range, others bloody and beaten, and then incarcerated over the border in mainland China in prison camps where rape and beating is the norm.

Among the victims has been a former UK diplomatic official, Simon Cheng.

Let's hope the foreign affairs council remembers this when it sits down to discuss these matters, for if it does not, then China is achieving another of its objectives. China is changing the fundamental principles of free speech upon which our democracies are based.

If we don't speak out, if we let our universities be corrupted and their missions perverted, and if we don't put human rights at the heart of free trade, then we are abandoning not just the young people of Hong Kong, but all of our peoples too. We need to stand with Hong Kong.

And on a practical point, if China thinks it can rip up the Basic Law of Hong Kong with impunity, compliance with the terms of a trade agreement is unlikely to be high on its agenda.

Author bio

Natalie Bennett is a peer in the UK House of Lords, a former leader of the Green Party, and chair of the all-party group on Hong Kong.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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