A commission of inquiry into police conduct can help Hong Kong’s healing process – an amnesty for protesters cannot
- An open and wide-ranging inquiry, led by a judge, would be the most effective way to ascertain the truth, and the process will have a therapeutic effect on society
- Carrie Lam, meanwhile, must encourage more debate in government and speak up for Hongkongers, while all officials should remember they are servants of the public
Like my fellow citizens, I am greatly concerned by recent events arising from the controversy over the fugitive offenders bill. As a former chief justice, I have no wish to participate in the political arena. But, having regard to the present extraordinary situation, I wish to contribute to the discussion, especially as certain issues have a legal dimension.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has already sincerely apologised for the government’s handling of the matter. She should be given the chance to continue to serve. I respect her for her unwavering dedication to public service.
As the chief executive strives to improve governance, I wish to respectfully make a few points. First, as a leader, before making important decisions, she should encourage more extensive debate within government. This will enable all options and angles to be explored and all considerations to be carefully weighed. This will lead to the making of better decisions.
Secondly, under the Basic Law, the chief executive is accountable to the central government and to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. The perception of Hong Kong people is that she has paid undue emphasis to the former. She must speak up more for them and should be seen to be doing so.
Thirdly, all holders of public office, whether serving in the executive, legislative or judicial branch of government, must always remember that they are not exercising parental authority over citizens. They are servants of the people and should serve with humility. They are subject to scrutiny in the court of public opinion.
But there are widespread calls for its immediate withdrawal. There is no practical difference between the two positions. That being so, and as it would assist in the process of reconciliation, the government should now withdraw the bill.
In spite of widespread calls, the government has refused to appoint a statutory independent commission of inquiry. It has stated that complaints against the police should be investigated by the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC).
It is tested by cross-examination and cannot be used in subsequent proceedings against the witness. Relevant parties are entitled to legal representation. The commission of inquiry mechanism has been invoked satisfactorily by the government before and after 1997 on many occasions.
The IPCC is a respected body. But, with the best will in the world, it cannot be as effective as a commission of inquiry for arriving at the truth. It has none of the powers, protections and features of such a commission. Further, apart from dealing with individual complaints, it is limited to identifying any default or deficiency in police practice or procedure.
A commission of inquiry would take a considerable time to report, at least, say, nine months. This would enable a calmer atmosphere to prevail. Further, allegations and grievances will be aired and explored in open public hearings. This would have a therapeutic effect for society and would assist in the process of reconciliation.
The force can then turn the page and move on. It will enable it to serve even better “with pride and care”, in accordance with its motto. In the absence of scrutiny by a commission of inquiry, there is a serious danger that grievances against the police would continue to fester.
It is a fundamental principle that everyone is subject to law. The law must be obeyed by everyone without exception. Compliance cannot be a matter of individual choice. A partial amnesty enacted by statute was granted in 1977 for pre-1977 corruption offences. The circumstances were entirely different.
In conclusion, as has been well said, time is the commander of all things. Reconciliation will take time, probably a long time. The government deserves to be supported in this process by the community.
The Hon Andrew Li Kwok-nang was the first chief justice of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region from 1997-2010