Comforting decision

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 March, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 29 March, 1996, 12:00am

The Privy Council's decision to release 15 boat people has been greeted with dismay by the Hong Kong Government, which fears the case may set a precedent for hundreds of other Vietnamese currently locked up in detention centres with no hope of repatriation or resettlement elsewhere.

That reaction is understandable, given the potential cost in claims for compensation for wrongful imprisonment. But it is also misplaced and short-sighted.

If it were not for the public's obsession with the boat people 'burden', Hong Kong would be celebrating the Privy Council's reaffirmation of the right to habeas corpus and its strictures against indefinite detention. As it prepares for the change of sovereignty next year, the territory should be rejoicing at this additional bolstering of the Basic Law's guarantee against arbitrary or unlawful detention or imprisonment.

The Immigration Ordinance allows detention, but the courts will not accept that it permits indefinite deprivation of liberty. It is significant that there was no reference to the Bill of Rights in the case. The ruling shows that the law provides sufficient protection without it.

Apart from the wider legal implications, the ruling is not all bad news. Sooner or later - certainly before the change of sovereignty - the Government would have had to consider what to do with the boat-people Vietnam refused to take back. The ruling will concentrate minds and force the administration to examine its options.

If it cannot persuade either Vietnam or China to accept 'non-nationals', it should turn back to the international community for help. Taiwan should certainly be its first target, since the Privy Council's ruling concerned people with expired Taiwanese papers. As a gesture of magnanimity and proof of its concern with democracy and human rights, Taipei should be ready to think again.

Failing that, resettlement countries should open their doors to this small group of people and end their statelessness once and for all. A one-off gesture of goodwill would be a painless way to demonstrate solidarity with Hong Kong.