Hong Kong’s chief executive doesn’t seem to understand that refugee lives matter, too

Tony Read says Leung Chun-ying’s comments about possibly withdrawing from an international convention on torture hint at draconian measures that sacrifice human rights

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 January, 2016, 4:51pm
UPDATED : Monday, 18 January, 2016, 4:51pm

At the end of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s policy address, he made a brief comment about refugees and the Convention against Torture, which has had every human rights advocate up in arms and speculating wildly about what he had in mind. A reporter from the Oriental Daily asked about abuse of the unified screening mechanism used to assess asylum-seekers’ protection claims, to which Leung replied he would consider quitting the international agreement if necessary.

READ MORE: Rights groups alarmed by Hong Kong chief executive’s remarks on pulling out of UN torture treaty

The condemnation from the human rights community was swift and strong. But everyone is left wondering what is going on. Was this an unscripted personal opinion, to be corrected later? None of the policy advisors seemed to have any knowledge of this.

Or, is there a hidden agenda to bolster public antipathy against asylum seekers? Leung seemed to applaud the focus on reporting abuse of the screening mechanism by so-called “fake” refugees and highlighting the activities of illegal asylum seekers.

Is this suggestion to prepare for a less extreme but still rigorous alternative? The Legislative Council security panel is due to discuss this issue, which suggests the possibility of using “holding camps” for asylum seekers. This is a radical solution but would be considered less drastic than arbitrary forced repatriation.

Was this a public knuckle-rapping for the UN Convention against Torture committee itself, which recently issued a critical review of Hong Kong’s progress in handling its asylum seekers?

It would be a sad day for Hong Kong if its leaders traded the human rights of the most vulnerable to deal with a minor problem of society

While the political fallout of revoking the convention and the practical difficulties of dealing with the 11,000 existing claimants make this an unlikely scenario, perhaps the most worrying aspect is that it is being voiced at the highest level. There is clearly a willingness to consider draconian measures that sacrifice human rights as a means of implementing tighter border controls and reducing crime.

It would be a sad day for Hong Kong if its leaders traded the human rights of the most vulnerable to deal with a minor problem of society. We could have hoped for assurances that any measures would safeguard the rights of those who have been persecuted; an acknowledgement that refugee lives matter. Instead, we have obfuscation.

The refugee issue is small compared to others in Hong Kong, but it cannot be treated lightly and simply waved aside by revoking an international agreement. It is not so much about results, but principle. We must do the right thing first and then deal with side issues later.

In Asia, we must learn how to live by the principle that refugee lives matter.

Tony Read writes on social justice issues