Providing the laws Hong Kong wants

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 February, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 February, 2003, 12:00am

Even before the proposals for anti-subversion laws under Article 23 of the Basic Law were published, officials of Hong Kong's government were confidently declaring the legislation would comply with international human rights agreements. In particular, the government has been keen to underline its intention that the controversial national security laws will not breach the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

While the government's statement of intent may have been greeted with some scepticism, it is now taking a step to help ensure this becomes reality. Announcing the timetable for enacting the laws yesterday, Secretary for Security Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee revealed that the safeguard will be written into the legislation itself. It will be stated that every provision must be interpreted and implemented in a way consistent with the ICCPR.

It could be said that all the government is doing is stating the obvious. After all, Article 39 of the Basic Law already makes it plain that rights cannot be restricted in ways which breach the covenant. However, this step will provide a measure of extra reassurance. When judges come to consider the laws in court, their attention will immediately be drawn to this requirement. It will carry much more weight than the repeated assertions of various senior officials.

Also, despite the apparently clear wording of Article 39, some pro-Beijing figures have suggested in the past that it does not give the courts the right to apply the ICCPR. By stating clearly in the anti-subversion legislation that the covenant applies, this argument can hopefully be avoided.

However, the significance of the move should not be overstated. The ICCPR is the minimum starting point in terms of protecting rights. The 1999 court ruling on laws banning desecration of the national flag has already shown that some restrictions on rights are permissible within the ICCPR, and this will certainly be argued by the government when it comes to national security cases. The really important safeguards will be those which are provided by the legislation itself, and they will only become clear when the bill is gazetted tomorrow.

Regrettably, Mrs Ip's statement yesterday confirmed that there will be no second round of public consultation on the wording of the bill. Any changes will have to be made through the legislative process. The government does not appear to have heeded warnings that it should avoid, at all costs, the perception that it is going to bulldoze the laws through Legco in accordance with a predetermined timetable.

Having adopted this approach, it is essential that both legislators and officials play their part in ensuring the process is one which provides Hong Kong with the laws its people want. Legislators will need to consult their constituents and vote with their consciences when amendments are proposed.

And the government must treat the legislature with respect. Allowing members of the business community such as Eden Woon Yi-teng, chief executive of the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce, to see the bill before legislators do creates the opposite impression. So do Mrs Ip's alleged attempts to suggest David Li Kwok-po, the bankers' representative in Legco, had misrepresented their concerns about the proposed laws.

The government has gone against the wishes of many in the community by refusing to publish a white bill to allow a second round of public consultation. The least it can do is to give Legco the time and the space it needs to properly scrutinise and amend the all-important legislation.