Patten shows opposition to commission

Quinton Chan

BRITISH Members of Parliament say the Governor, Chris Patten, indicated his opposition to the establishment of a human rights commission during a private meeting at the House of Commons last week.

While the Governor was careful to avoid categorically rejecting the idea of a commission, he left his audience in little doubt that he will not back its creation when the issue comes before the Executive Council next month.

Two senior backbenchers, who asked not to be named, said Mr Patten suggested he preferred to find other ways of protecting human rights in Hong Kong, arguing these might be seen as a more intelligent move since they could survive beyond 1997.

At a packed meeting with members of the Hong Kong Parliamentary Group and Foreign Affairs Back Bench Committee of the Conservative Party, the Governor said these would include wide-ranging changes to existing laws.

Among these would be the amendment of a number of ordinances the Hong Kong Journalists' Association says restrict the freedom of the press.

Other changes will involve readier and more affordable access to the courts by people who feel their rights have been infringed, probably through providing legal aid.

The Governor is said to have argued that such a complex range of changes in existing laws would be more difficult for a future government to scrap than a human rights commission.

In public, Mr Patten has so far been more cautious, refusing to respond to a question on Friday on whether such changes would be more effective than a human rights commission. Government spokesman Mike Hanson also denied any decision had been made.

But the Governor did say ''the most important factor'' in deciding what human rights measures to introduce will be which have ''the best chances of continuing to work into the indefinite future''.

A senior British Government official confirmed Mr Patten's talks in Whitehall had resulted in a consensus against a human rights commission.

The Governor can block the creation of such a body, as proposed in independent legislator Anna Wu Hung-yuk's draft bill, since it involves substantial government expenditure. But he will be unable to stop the formation of Hong Kong's first independent human rights watchdog, which is now expected to be launched on June 24, and submit its first report to the United Nations later in the year.

The Hong Kong Independent Human Rights Monitor will operate under the auspices of the Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), a non-governmental organisation committed to defend the rule of law and human rights around the world.

The ICJ is working with its local arm, Hong Kong Justice, and the English Bar Association on the final stages of the formation of the new group.

Hong Kong Justice secretary Paul Harris said the new group will have more work to do if the Government rejects an official human rights commission.

''It will depend whether the Government goes ahead and set up a human rights commission. If it decides not to do so, then a lot of the work of that commission will fall on to us,'' he said.

Mr Harris said the situation of Vietnamese boat people living in detention centres, witnesses being held in prison, as well as the implementation of two international human rights treaties in the territory - the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women - would be their top priorities.

But the group has not yet raised enough funds to implement their original plan to hire a full-time legal expert and an administrator to look at local human rights issues.

Mr Harris said they were looking for volunteer lawyers within the group to take on the job, while also looking for an office on Hong Kong Island.

The group has expressed worries over whether Beijing would ban it after 1997, because of its nature and ties with other international organisations.