WONG Min, the second secretary of the Chinese mission to the United Nations in Geneva, was doodling in his notebook. And at least two of the distinguished judges and lawyers around the three tables at the hearing on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) were asleep. It was half way through the afternoon and Solicitor General Daniel Fung QC was explaining how he did not want to get drawn into 'Chinese jurisprudential principles'. Quite. For 21/2 days last week Room 11 at the Palais des Nations in Geneva heard everything from the role of the Heung Yee Kuk in New Territories' life to the use of tear gas in controlling last year's riot at the Whitehead Detention Camp. Down the corridor, the Working Committee on Coal met next to the committee examining customs practice around the world. But despite the blandness of this city, inside Room 11 of the Palais something of potentially great note for Hong Kong took place. A highly influential UN committee in effect decided it would not let Hong Kong slip into some human rights black hole after 1997. It is examining the same subject in regimes as disparate as Afghanistan and Sweden. But it decided it would call on the British Government to come back next year with an answer as to why China was apparently so reluctant to monitor and report openly on human rights in the Special Administrative Region after 1997. For, as nearly all the eminent judges and lawyers on the 17-strong committee pointed out, once the ICCPR was brought into effect in any state or territory there was absolutely no mechanism for removing it. China may be a non-signatory of the covenant but just because there would be a change of sovereignty in Hong Kong in 1997 does not mean the protections of the covenant should lapse and vanish. Perhaps Mr Wong from the Chinese mission should have answered the questions rather than leaving the room to hum to the polished tones of Henry Steel, a legal adviser to Britain's Foreign Office, and Daniel Fung QC. Perhaps, as one of the five Legislative Council members despatched to the hearing commented, it would have been better if the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong had sent someone so that there could be a read-out on pro-Beijing thinking. The Legco remit was to lobby on the issue of future reporting and its team stuck to the brief. But the committee was equally concerned to examine Hong Kong's practices under the covenant now as worrying about what would happen in the future. While the proceedings were hidebound with protocol with members and witnesses almost tripping over themselves in their politeness, there was much criticism of the present position too with at least four articles under the Covenant being breached by the Government. According to committee members, there were breaches of articles on the right to self-determination - Hong Kong people were not consulted on the handover. There were breaches of articles dealing with the treatment of human beings with dignity in the way the Vietnamese in the camps are housed. The functional constituencies amounted to a further breach because they were not democratic. Article 26 on non-discrimination was also a breach, due to its unfairness. The lack of provision against both ageism and sexism in Hong Kong law was another as probably was the issue of the caged people. Daniel Fung and Henry Steel were adept at their task, at least the ever-polite committee members thought so. Steel was a master of the verbal art of foreplay spreading one minute of quality speech over 10 minutes before he gets to the point. Mr Fung gave the impression he would say thank-you to someone who punched him and there was much mirth among the seven Hong Kong non-governmental organisations at the way he prefaced nearly every reply to a question with the phrase 'I am grateful.' This was the Solicitor General explaining the Government's reluctance to create a Human Rights Commission: 'We note with interest the views of members and there is no question of ignoring those views. Whilst I cannot give an assurance, nevertheless we are grateful for the views expressed.' He answered with patience and dignity, especially given that he was often being questioned by those from regimes with much worse human rights records than Hong Kong. The Government deluged the committee with human rights teaching materials, human rights comics and video and audio cassettes and books. The questioning began on Wednesday when the NGOs put their case. They were fortunate in that many on the committee were completely acquainted with Hong Kong issues. But the NGOs were professional too. Last year when they appeared before the parallel committee on the UN's Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Covenant, long boring presentations risked spoiling their case. Last week they had just one hour, agreed to speak tightly to two minutes each and stuck to their plan rigidly winning a great deal of respect. Privately they would lobby committee members after each session pointing out gaps in government statements. Their plan worked. As the hearing ended with an agreement to summon Britain back, Christine Chanet, an eminent French lawyer, summed up the views of many saying 'special vigilance is called for in the time that remains'. Former Indian Chief Justice Profullachandra Bhagwati said there was now a heavy burden on Britain to solve the dilemma. The situation would have been much better if Hong Kong had received democracy much earlier. To do all this 'in the dusk of British rule in Hong Kong' was no easy task.