HKU constitutional expert urges pragmatism on political reform

HKU academic Yash Ghai has helped write constitutions around the world and says pragmatism is needed to make democracy a reality here

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 March, 2014, 4:28am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 March, 2014, 4:28am

A University of Hong Kong academic who has helped troubled states create democratic constitutions has called for pragmatism over the city's political reform.

Professor Yash Ghai says allowing the public to nominate candidates for chief executive in 2017 is not essential for the city to meet international standards for universal suffrage.

But Ghai, emeritus professor of law at HKU, also backed the Occupy Central civil disobedience movement, initiated by his colleague Benny Tai Yiu-ting, as a "very legitimate" way to "exercise democratic rights".

Ghai, an expert on Hong Kong's Basic Law, was speaking amid a split in the pan-democratic camp over nominations for the 2017 poll, due to be the first run under one-person, one-vote. Radicals want to veto any proposal that would not give the public a role in nominations.

"Having a committee for nomination is by itself not against the principles of free elections, certainly not incompatible with article 25 of the [International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights]," Ghai told the South China Morning Post, referring to a covenant signed by the city on democratic rights.

Such a committee is stipulated in the Basic Law. But Ghai said it must be truly representative and follow procedures that are transparent and fair.

He called on Hongkongers to be realistic and balance their ideals with Beijing's position. The central government and its local loyalists rejected public nomination as incompatible with the mini-constitution - although Ghai says public nomination could be accommodated within the Basic Law.

"But it is a hard decision to make. Some people feel that the essential principles of democracy as reflected in article 25 are so important that there can be no compromises," he said. "Others feel that you have to be realistic and you have to pocket what you are getting."

Ghai also said that public nomination should not be the bottom line in negotiations.

"It would be nice to have it, but if you have the rule that they can submit their own nominations to the fairly representative body, following a fair process [with] transparency, explanation and justification … If you can have that kind of structure, yes, I would be very comfortable with that," he said.

One idea Ghai rejected was that the nominating committee would use block voting, with each member choosing a set number of candidates, giving whichever camp held the majority of the seats the power to block out rivals. The idea has been suggested by some Beijing loyalists.

Ghai, a Kenyan who joined HKU in 1989 and who has advised countries including South Sudan and Libya on new constitutions, says Hong Kong is "perfectly capable of running a democratic society" that does not pose a threat to Beijing.

"All the protests that happen down here … even Occupy is very peacefully [designed]. So what more can China ask for?" Ghai said, referring to the proposal by Tai and others to block streets in Central if no acceptable plan for reform comes forward.

Ghai was among international legal and political experts who participated in a roundtable on reform organised by HKU on Thursday, where they put forward a set of guiding principles on electoral methods that met international standards.

That would require a fair, transparent nomination procedure, they said.

A government consultation on reform ends in May.