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

Hong Kong could not pull out of convention unilaterally, warn experts

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 January, 2016, 12:24pm
UPDATED : Friday, 16 December, 2016, 11:01pm

Experts have warned that Hong Kong cannot unilaterally pull out of the United Nations Convention Against Torture, after Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying raised eyebrows by declaring the city would do it “if needed”.

Rights groups are alarmed at the prospect of Hong Kong abandoning the treaty signed by 158 of 193 UN member states after Leung announced a comprehensive overhaul of the current system for dealing with refugee status and asylum to stamp out alleged widespread abuse.

“It would be an extreme measure – and very rare – for any state to withdraw from their commitments under international human rights law,” said Kelley Loper, director of the human rights programme at the University of Hong Kong’s Faculty of Law.

READ MORE: Hong Kong could quit torture convention, says CY

Only China can withdraw from the convention, not Hong Kong on its own, Loper noted. “China would need to make the request on behalf of the state, not a particular part of the state,” she said.

Loper pointed out that Beijing would have to give one year’s notice to the UN if it were to pull out. The convention also stipulates any commitments made before such a withdrawal must be met.

She also explained that even if the central government rejected the convention, Hong Kong’s Basic Law and Bill of Rights duties would still apply.

“Hong Kong also has a duty not to return anyone to face a serious risk of torture or other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which has been entrenched into Hong Kong domestic law,” she said.

Piya Muqit, executive director of Justice Centre, warned that if Hong Kong were to withdraw “it would join the ranks of repressive regimes such as Zimbabwe, the Central African Republic and North Korea”.

The controversy comes two months after the Committee Against Torture, which monitors implementation of the convention, expressed concern over the Hong Kong’s portrayal of “all claimants in need of protection as abusers of the system”.

The current system of screening asylum seekers started in March 2014, and there is a backlog of 10,922 cases , with 5,400 people having been screened so far.

Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said yesterday the government receives around 400 new torture claims every month, with costs to taxpayers of HK$600 million a year.

Puja Kapai, professor of law at the University of Hong Kong and a former barrister at the High Court, said the chief executive’s declarations reflected the government’s short-sightedness.

“When you discover abuse or loopholes in a system, you work to plug the gap. You do not throw out the baby with the bath water,” she said.

Kapai also criticised the timing of Leung’s comments, in light of the missing bookseller mystery.

She said “As we await news on the facts surrounding the disappearance of Lee Bo, such a withdrawal would foment further distrust and deepen paranoia harboured against the government.”

Hong Kong does not resettle asylum seekers, as it is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, but is obligated to screen torture claims.

A government source said officials were shocked by Leung’s remarks, as it was not discussed with related law enforcement agencies.

“We have never heard of it before. We also find the remarks contradictory to the policy address, as Leung just pledged to add manpower to speed up screenings of asylum claims,” the source said.

The chief executive has left them puzzling over how to handle current torture claims.