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The latest arrests in Hong-Kong show human rights must be at the heart of British foreign policy

The latest arrests in Hong-Kong show human rights must be at the heart of British foreign policy

Pretty much every prominent pro-democracy figure is now either in jail, facing charges, retired or in exile, writes Baroness Kennedy. | PA Images

Baroness Kennedy

Baroness Kennedy

5 min read

Hong Kong's rule of law is on the brink. The onus is on Britain to urgently take more substantive steps to signal to China there is a diplomatic cost to breaking international treaties.

With all eyes on the storming of Capitol Hill, it would have been easy to miss the purging of Hong Kong's democrats on Wednesday.

The significance of the Chinese government's actions should not be underestimated. It is a hammer blow to the democratic movement. The arrest of 53 democratic politicians - from the most moderate to the most radical - exposes the true intent of the National Security Law. It means that pretty much every prominent pro-democracy figure is now either in jail, facing charges, retired or in exile.

Most absurd of all are the charges laid against them. Their supposed crime? Holding a primary election and trying to win a majority. The city's Secretary for Security, John Lee, said that the opposition attempting to win control of the Legislative Council amounted to 'subversion'. 

The illusion that Hong Kong is an international, liberal city has been shattered. It is now clear that Carrie Lam has little more power than a provincial mayor and that the city is being run from Beijing.

Hong Kong is fast approaching the position where all dissent is potentially criminal

The National Security Law, which was imposed via a central government diktat, is now given precedence when there are conflicts between the demands of the legislation and those of the city's mini-constitution, the Basic Law. This means that the human rights safeguards laid out in the constitution are increasingly meaningless: 'national security' has been given such a broad definition, now encompassing even the aspiration to win an election, that Hong Kong is fast approaching the position where all dissent is potentially criminal.

To make matters worse, the city's leader is also given powers under the law to hand-pick the judges in national security cases. Hong Kong has been historically famed for the independence of the judiciary. But in the context of national security cases, the executive branch now has the power to pick both the charge (the Secretary of Justice is the head of prosecutions) and the judge. The city's rule of law teeters on the brink. 

What does this mean for us in the United Kingdom? This latest series of arrests is yet another sign of China's total disregard for the commitments made to Britain in international law under the Sino-British Joint Declaration. They have shown contempt for the treaty which was signed in good faith in 1984, and the onus is on the British government to now strongly signal that this is unacceptable. There must be consequences.

While the British National (Overseas) offer is to be welcomed, we must take more substantive steps to signal that there is a diplomatic cost to breaking treaties. The first and easiest way of doing this would be for Dominic Raab to designate a list of Hong Kong and Chinese Central Government officials under the Magnitsky sanctions regime. A second step to consider would be applying for a case to be considered by the International Court of Justice under the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties.

While China is unlikely to accept the ICJ's jurisdiction, the very act of bringing the case forward would be laden with significance and symbolism. 

The inauguration of Joe Biden provides further opportunities for an international alliance of liberal democracies to form so that there is coordination going forwards. Britain's Hong Kong policy should be coordinated with both our Five Eyes allies, the EU as well as regional allies such as India and Japan. This is the best way of the democratic world signalling that Hong Kong matters to us, and we will not look the other way. 

Our financial institutions must also be placed under scrutiny. HSBC has endorsed the national security law and even frozen the assets of Hong Kong's democrats. Their complicity should be put under greater scrutiny - their private meetings with ministers should be stopped until their stance changes.

We should also be asking whether it is right for British institutional investors to be investing millions into Chinese state-owned enterprises with ties to the Chinese military. The US government has started to place restrictions on investment into these firms. If the situation in Hong Kong does not improve, then the UK should consider similar measures.

Yet there are wider lessons to be learnt here. They must be drawn into the heart of our China strategy moving forwards. The willingness of the Chinese Communist Party to cast aside this treaty, made in good faith, shows that we need to examine our varying dependencies again. If promises made in the Joint Declaration cannot be trusted, Beijing's involvement should be questioned when considering the presence of China General Nuclear or Huawei in our key strategic infrastructure. 

Finally, Parliament should be considering China's wider human rights record and what steps can be taken to engage with the genocide of the Uyghurs. I co-sponsored an amendment to the trade bill which passed the House of Lords in December, which will allow the British courts to make designations of genocide.

Too often the international community is too slow to respond to genocide because of the geopolitics that governs international courts. The House of Commons should pass this amendment so that we are able to act robustly when genocides take place - whether that is of the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang or the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.

It is time for us to take these seriously. Human rights should be at the heart of British foreign policy. 


Baroness Kennedy is a Labour member of the House of Lords and a co-chair of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China.

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