The United Kingdom’s government has begun discussions on whether it is appropriate for British judges to continue to sit on Hong Kong’s top court following China’s imposition of a national security law in the territory and the disqualification of elected legislators that Britain has said is in breach of international law.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab says he had started consultations with the Lord Chancellor and Lord Reed, the president of the UK’s Supreme Court, on the British judges who sit on Hong Kong’s Final Court of Appeal.
“This has been, and continues to be, the most concerning period in Hong Kong’s post-handover history,” Raab wrote in the UK’s latest six-monthly report on Hong Kong, which covers the six months until June 30, as well as more recent developments.
The foreign secretary noted there had been two “substantive” breaches of international law in relation to Hong Kong and the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, which laid out the terms of the territory’s return to Chinese rule in 1997.
The first, he said, was the imposition late on June 30 of the National Security Law, broadly worded legislation which punishes acts of secession, sedition, subversion and collusion with foreign powers with a life sentence.
The second was a decision earlier this month on new rules for the disqualification of elected Hong Kong legislators, which led to the immediate removal of four pro-democracy representatives and the mass resignation of pro-democracy members a day later.
“Hong Kong’s high level of autonomy and rights and freedoms are enshrined in the Joint Declaration,” Raab said. “However, Beijing’s decisions to impose the National Security Law and then, a few months later, to disqualify elected legislators, represent two substantive breaches of the Joint Declaration in just five months. This calls into serious question China’s commitment to the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ framework.”
Britain has already moved to allow millions of Hong Kong people a path to settlement and UK citizenship, suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong and widened its China arms embargo to include Hong Kong. Other Western countries have also made similar moves and rights groups have expressed concern for Hong Kong’s freedoms.
The comments in the latest UK report, which has been published every six months since the handover, drew condemnation from Hong Kong and China.
The Hong Kong administration said it strongly objected to what it described as “sweeping attacks and groundless accusations” from the territory’s former colonial ruler saying the security law had been introduced following “acts and activities undermining social order which endangered Hong Kong’s stability”,
The territory was rocked by months of sometimes violent protests last year that were triggered by a proposed extradition bill but evolved into a mass movement for democracy.
The British report said while the Hong Kong government had made some initial efforts at dialogue over the protests the approach had “since been abandoned, with the apparent focus now on retribution against political opposition and silencing of dissent”.
China also condemned the British criticism of Hong Kong developments, accusing the UK of meddling in China’s internal affairs and undermining “one country, two systems” by its offer of a path to citizenship for some Hong Kong people.
“Wake up and stop the old colonial dream of interfering in Hong Kong’s affairs!” a spokesperson for the Office of the Commissioner of the Chinese Foreign Ministry in Hong Kong was quoted as saying by the state-run Xinhua news agency.
Hong Kong was a British colony for more than 150 years until its return to China.
At the handover it was agreed two top judges from the UK would also sit on the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal, in order the show Britain’s continuing commitment to safeguarding the rule of law in Hong Kong. The court also includes retired judges from the UK and from other common law jurisdictions, including Australia and Canada.
Lord Reed is currently the only serving UK judge on the court.
He said in a statement in July that the National Security Law contained “a number of provisions which give rise to concerns” and noted that whether judges could continue to serve in Hong Kong would “depend on whether such service remains compatible with judicial independence and the rule of law”.