Handle with care

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 July, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 July, 2002, 12:00am

Once the United Nations called on member states to enact laws to prevent terrorism in the wake of the September 11 attacks, it was only a matter of time before Hong Kong complied.

The passage of the United Nations (Anti-Terrorism Measures) Bill through the Legislative Council has enabled Hong Kong, as a part of China, to meet its international obligations.

Hong Kongers may feel they are able to sleep easier at night, knowing that the SAR has done its bit in the global crackdown against terrorism.

But concerns have been raised that the new laws are too vague, could lead to sanctions being imposed against the innocent, and may restrict civil liberties.

A long list of specific questions and criticisms have been expressed, from the broad language used to define terrorism to a provision which defines as criminals anyone working for a terrorist in any capacity, even a cleaner.

What has become clear during the passage of the bill is that drafting laws of this kind is a complex business, requiring the greatest care. A delicate balancing act is needed if rights are to be safeguarded. It would have been better if more time had been allowed for public consultation and for legislators to better scrutinise the bill.

Secretary for Security Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee has argued that the speedy enacting of the legislation was necessary in order to prevent Hong Kong becoming the 'weakest link' in the international effort to combat terrorism. She also warned the SAR could become a haven for terrorists. While it is important that Hong Kong is not seen to drag its heels, there does not appear to be any evidence that the SAR faces an imminent terrorist threat.

Some parts of the bill appear to go beyond what is required under the UN resolution, such as those dealing with hoax threats, which some fear could restrict press freedom.

The government said at an early stage that it intended to adopt a minimalist approach, introducing only those laws which are necessary. It is questionable whether the final product meets this description.

It has listened to the concerns, and a number of significant amendments have been made, notably the requirement for the Chief Executive to go to court before declaring someone a terrorist. But many doubts remain and care will need to be taken to ensure that the new powers given to the executive are used sparingly and only in cases where it is clear a genuine terrorist threat exists.