British government ignored Hong Kong’s rights, Jurists say

The British government showed a disturbing lack of concern for the human rights of Hong Kong citizens when it negotiated the agreement with China, concludes a report issued today by the ICJ.

The report, “Countdown to 1997”, says the United Kingdom was not entitled to hand over to China about 3 million British citizens without giving them the right of self-determination. Under international law, the inhabitants should have been allowed a referendum to approve or reject the Joint Declaration before it was signed by the United Kingdom and China in December 1984. In principle, the report says, the British government has an obligation to provide rights of abode in the United Kingdom or in acceptable third countries to British dependent territory citizens who wish to leave Hong Kong.

Moreover, the jurists fault the British government for not objecting to the unsatisfactory provisions of the Basic Law, which was promulgated by China in 1990 and will be the constitution of Hong Kong after 1997.

With the Basic Law, China in many respects is evading obligations it accepted when it signed the Joint Declaration, the report says. One major concern is the future of the judiciary.

For example, the Chinese National People’s Congress – not the courts of Hong Kong – have been given the power to interpret the Basic Law and to decide whether existing laws of Hong Kong contravene it. If an independent judiciary is not maintained, the protection of human rights is in jeopardy, the report cautions.

The Joint Declaration, ratified by the United Kingdom and China in May 1985, has the status of a treaty between the two countries. It stipulates that the United Kingdom will restore to China the New Territories, Hong Kong Island and Kowloon on 1 July 1997, the date when the lease on the New Territories expires.

“The Joint Declaration was signed before the brutal suppression of the pro-democracy movement in June 1989,” said ICJ Secretary-General Adama Dieng. “The big question is: Will the Chinese government allow the people of Hong Kong to exercise the rights and freedoms which it has denied so far to its own citizens? And will the Chinese government in fact allow Hong Kong the high degree of autonomy which it has promised?”

The authors of the report are Sir William Goodhart, Q.C., of the United Kingdom, Chairman of the mission to Hong Kong; Y.M. Raja Aziz Addruse, former President of the Malaysian Bar Council; John Dowd, A.O, Q.C., former Attorney General of New South Wales; and Hans-Heiner Kühne, Law Professor at the University of Trier, Germany.

They carried out a mission to Hong Kong in June 1991. During the visit, they met with members of government, the legal profession, the press, the business community and human rights and political groups. However, they were unable to obtain any cooperation from anyone directly or indirectly representing China.

The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), headquartered in Geneva, is a non-governmental organization in consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council, UNESCO, the Council of Europe and the OAU. Founded in 1952, its task is to defend the Rule of Law throughout the world and to work towards the full observance of the provisions in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The ICJ has been a driving force behind the adoption of numerous international declarations and standards including the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, the UN Basic Principles on the Independence of the Judiciary, the European Convention Against Torture and the African Charter of Human and Peoples’ Rights. It is composed of 31 distinguished jurists from around the globe national sections and affiliated organizations.

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