Universal suffrage in Hong Kong
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Veteran lawyer Maria Tam

Basic Law expert accused of twisting facts on voting rights

Comments on universal suffrage put Basic Law veteran Maria Tam's credibility on the line

Pan-democrats and legal experts have called into question the credibility of a Basic Law heavyweight after she allegedly "twisted facts" regarding people's political rights guaranteed in an international covenant.

Maria Tam Wai-chu, local head of delegation to the National People's Congress and a Basic Law Committee member, said on two occasions yesterday that the rights to stand for election and to nominate were not covered in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provision on universal suffrage.

The lawyer also claimed that the chief executive's oath included a vow of allegiance to the central government.

But the found there was an inconsistency between Tam's assertions and what was stated in the two documents concerned.

Article 25(b) of the covenant stated: "Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity ... to vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage."

The chief executive's oath, in the Oaths and Declarations Ordinance, read: "I will ... bear allegiance to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China and ... be held accountable to the Central People's Government of the People's Republic of China and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region."University of Hong Kong associate law professor Benny Tai Yiu-ting, citing previous judicial rulings on the article, said: "There has been no distinction between the rights to vote, to nominate and to stand for election."

Tai said the spirit of universal suffrage - "using common sense" - did not mean merely that one had the right to vote, but whether one had a real choice in the vote. "If you gave me a rotten orange and a rotten apple and asked me to choose one, does it amount to a choice?" he asked.

HKU assistant law professor Eric Cheung Tat-ming said while Tam was correct in noting that the Hong Kong government had reserved ratification of Article 25(b), it would make no sense if a universal suffrage arrangement paid no regard to the provision. "There's no reason for China to ignore international standards while pledging Hongkongers universal suffrage."

Cheung stressed that although Beijing had yet to ratify the covenant by incorporating it into local laws, being a signatory to it already demonstrated the central government's agreement with the spirit of the covenant.

There was also no need for the chief executive to bear allegiance to the central government, he said, as the mainland's constitution was in many ways contradictory with the Basic Law.

Civic Party lawmaker Dr Kenneth Chan Ka-lok said Tam "deliberately twisted the covenant to mislead the public".

Democratic Party chairwoman Emily Lau Wai-hing said Britain had reserved ratification of Article 25(b) when the covenant was extended to Hong Kong in 1976 as there had been no elections in the city then.

"But since 1991, there have been direct elections in the Legislative Council. The authoritative view of the [UN Human Rights] Committee has long been that the reservation clause should become invalid when direct elections take place," she said.

Political commentator Ching Cheong said Tam's comments made Beijing seem like a "sore loser". While Beijing had in the early years after the handover assured people that the covenant would still apply to the city, Tam was now arguing that an article would not be in force, he said.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Expert accused of twisting facts on voting rights