Hong Kong protesters hold a rally from Chater Garden in Central to the US Consulate on December 1, in appreciation of the US passage of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. Photo: Winson Wong
Hanscom Smith
Hanscom Smith

Human rights are universal, which is why the United States stands with Hong Kong

  • The Human Rights and Democracy Act is an extension of the Hong Kong Policy Act, the basis of the US approach since 1992. The US believes human rights are universal, and has a long-standing policy that China should honour its agreements on Hong Kong

International Human Rights Day is a chance to reflect on those core principles and values to which 193 nations have committed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They committed to preserving ideals such as the right of freedom from torture and cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment, the right to freedom of religion or belief, or the right to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly.

Under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, every human being in the world can claim these as their own birthright, no matter their citizenship or allegiance. 

The word “universal” in the declaration’s title was a purposeful choice, showing that it was the product of consensus among a wide cross-section of global rights traditions.

The declaration’s diverse group of drafters found a common purpose in the universal rights they outlined. They understood that the nations of the world had a duty to one another to stand up for human dignity and protect the human rights to which every person is entitled.

Sadly, not all nations respect their commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Chinese government, for example, has forced more than 1 million Uygurs and members of other Muslim minority groups into internment camps in Xinjiang since 2017, demolished numerous Christian churches and has repressed the religion and culture of Tibet for decades.

This repression stands in stark contrast to the fundamental freedoms that the people of Hong Kong have historically enjoyed under the “one country, two systems” framework; however, these are increasingly under threat.

Engagement with the Chinese people on these important issues would lead to greater mutual understanding yet, on the mainland, our ability to communicate directly – the same way Chinese diplomats are allowed to communicate to the American people – is sadly curtailed.

On this International Human Rights Day, the United States reiterates its unwavering support for Hong Kong’s cherished freedoms, legal system and way of life. It is the United States’ long-standing policy that China honour its commitments to protect those rights, as outlined in the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984, an international treaty filed with the United Nations.

Promises made in Sino-British Joint Declaration must continue to be kept

The American commitment to the continued protection of human rights in Hong Kong has been unwavering. In 1992, Congress and then-president George H.W. Bush collaborated in a bipartisan manner to enact the Hong Kong Policy Act, which established the legal mechanism to treat Hong Kong as a separate entity for the purpose of US law.

Activist Denise Ho Wan-sze (second left) speaks during a Congressional-Executive Commission on China hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on September 17, flanked by Joshua Wong Chi-fung, and Sunny Cheung, with executive director of Human Rights in China Sharon Hom (far right). Photo: EPA-EFE

Premised on the concept of one country, two systems, the Hong Kong Policy Act explicitly states that “support for democratisation is a fundamental principle of United States foreign policy. As such, it naturally applies to United States policy toward Hong Kong.”


It also states that “the human rights of the people of Hong Kong are of great importance to the United States and are directly relevant to United States interests in Hong Kong”.

Young people’s pursuit of happiness key to Hong Kong’s prosperity

The Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992 has been the basis of successful US engagement with the city for over two decades. The act has contributed not only to America’s successful engagement with Hong Kong – including almost US$67 billion in annual bilateral trade – it has also helped to facilitate Hong Kong’s role as a vibrant hub of commerce, education and innovation – a powerful example of the virtues of openness, and a model for not only mainland China, but the entire Indo-Pacific region.

The United States’ consistent, bipartisan support for Hong Kong’s autonomy and human rights continues to this day. The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act augments the Hong Kong Policy Act to affirm America’s commitment to the universal values we support in Hong Kong, and around the world. The amendment reflects the American people’s growing concern over Beijing’s encroachment on the autonomy of Hong Kong.

The Joint Declaration and one country, two systems framework should not be empty promises. All sides must reject violence. Both the Hong Kong and central governments should give serious consideration to the political concerns of the Hong Kong people.

On International Human Rights Day, we recognise the aspirations of the Hong Kong people – and people everywhere – to enjoy every freedom guaranteed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Hanscom Smith is the US consul general for Hong Kong and Macau