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Hong Kong: Covid-19 - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:27 pm on 19th March 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws Labour 1:27 pm, 19th March 2020

My Lords, like others I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Pendry for calling this important debate today. I also want to pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, who has for so many years been an incredible inspiration and champion of human rights the world over.

While the coronavirus has catalysed a ceasefire in the political unrest in Hong Kong, none of the underlying tension has been resolved, and therefore it is likely that unrest will resurface. We must not lose sight of the importance of this issue. The ceasefire gives the Hong Kong Government an opportunity to de-escalate and promote reconciliation, and I hope that the Government are pressing them to do this rather than continue their crack-down.

As the director of the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute, I would like to make a few comments on the disturbing pressure that Hong Kong’s rule of law is under. The presiding justice of the Court of Final Appeal, Kemal Bokhary, recently said that Hong Kong’s rule of law was facing a “full force” storm. Given our shared legal heritage and common law system, and given the fact that the rule of law underpins Hong Kong’s position as an international business hub, I know that this will be a matter of concern for many in this House.

This House will recall that the protest movement began in 2019 precisely because the rule of law is cherished by the Hong Kong people. Civil society groups, businesses, lawyers and politicians united to condemn the extradition law because it would inevitably have resulted in Hong Kong citizens being extradited to face unjust trials in mainland China.

The institute I direct joined in with a statement from leading British and international legal bodies stating that Bill would fail to adequately protect human rights and fundamentally imperil the operation of the rule of law. We said:

“In so far as the proposals would introduce any human rights examination at all, they are vested in Hong Kong’s Chief Executive who, in view of her function and the nature of her appointment, would appear to lack the necessary impartiality and independence to adjudicate such issues.”

That of course was a veiled expression of concern about the way that Carrie Lam was carrying out her role.

While 2014’s political unrest in Hong Kong was about democratic reforms, the 2019 political unrest was primarily about the preservation of fundamental rights and the rule of law. The extradition Bill was the spark that lit the bonfire, and it was particularly toxic because it followed years of pressure on the rule of law and on fundamental rights. Victor Mallet, the Financial Times Asia editor who was expelled from Hong Kong, wrote an op ed piece before the protests broke out which stated:

“The popular myth about boiling a frog—that the animal jumps out of the pot if placed in boiling water but he will die when plonked in cold water and gradually cooked—should be recalled by anyone involved in politics, business or the law in Asia today. In most cases, freedom and the rule of law are being eroded only gradually, but the erosion is real and the cumulative effect substantial.”

The noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, mentioned the undermining of press freedom. Given the commitment of this Government to media freedom, I hope that the issue is being raised with Hong Kong in our interactions with the Executive. From the abduction of booksellers in 2015 to the prosecution of political activists under anachronistic, colonial-era public order legislation, which has already been referred to; from the political screening of candidates for election following Beijing’s interpretation of the constitution to the banning of a political party, the temperature has been slowly rising for years. But with the extradition Bill, that temperature dialled up 1 degree higher than the people could stand and the protest movement was the result.

What is of most concern is that the protest movement has exposed the underlying rot in the system. The police have enjoyed impunity when using excessive force, which has eroded public trust in the system. I hope that the Minister agrees that it is vital that an independent inquiry is called into the events of recent months—other speakers have mentioned that—and,H if the Hong Kong Government are unwilling to initiate that themselves, we should urge the United Nations to do so and to initiate a truth and reconciliation commission.

Perhaps the biggest watershed moment for the judiciary went largely unnoticed around the world because of current events. After Hong Kong’s High Court rightly pronounced the Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s application of the emergency regulations ordinance as being unconstitutional, China’s National People’s Congress made an announcement which could, if translated into policy, signal the end of Hong Kong’s rule of law as we know it. I really emphasise that.

China’s constitution and the Basic Law jointly form the constitutional foundation of Hong Kong, but a spokesman for the National People’s Congress Legislative Affairs Committee said:

“Whether Hong Kong’s laws are consistent with the Basic Law can only be judged and decided by the National People’s Congress’ Standing Committee. No other authority has the right to make judgments and decisions.”

The statement also condemns the judgment of the Hong Kong court as severely weakening the legally enshrined power to govern enjoyed by the Chief Executive.

That statement makes clear where power lies and who determines, in the view of China, what the rule of law means. The statement is a naked power grab by the central government from the Hong Kong judiciary and is clearly in breach of existing Hong Kong case law and the terms of the Sino-British joint declaration. The Chinese are making it clear that they get to decide what the constitution says and what the Basic Law is, not the courts of Hong Kong. I hope the Minister agrees that any attempt to strip Hong Kong’s courts of their powers of final adjudication and constitutional interpretation would severely undermine the city’s common law system.

As elsewhere in the world, Hong Kong’s politics have paused to allow breathing space for the coronavirus. In fact, looking at the graphs, Hong Kong has been handling this emergency somewhat well, and for that we should be grateful, but, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, under the cover of the virus leaders around the world are taking the opportunity to override law. We have even seen President Trump doing it on his border, where people are not even allowed to claim asylum but are being turned back, so the international commitments on asylum are being abused. The events of 2019 have left the rule of law in Hong Kong in a storm of unprecedented ferocity, so will the Minister say what we are going to do to ensure that human rights are upheld and that the judicial system in Hong Kong retains its integrity?