Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor

Breaking Promises on Rights Covenants

Emily Lau is an outspoken Legislative Councillor, spokesperson of the political group Frontier, and an active member of the Monitor. In this article she updates us on the work of LegCo relating to Rights Covenants.

In October and November, three United Nations committees held hearings to scrutinise Hong Kong's human rights record. Hong Kong officials will attend as part of the British delegation. The Legislative Council House Committee has decided to submit its own reports and send delegations to Geneva.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child will hold hearings on October 3, the UN Human Rights Committee in late October, and the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights on November 26.

Next March, hearings will be held by the UN committees on Racial Discrimination and on Torture.

Instead of lumping Hong Kong together with other British colonies, the hearings will be on Hong Kong alone, treating it like a sovereign state.

The spate of hearings may well be the last time that human rights in Hong Kong are so closely monitored by the UN. After the Chinese takeover next July, the submission of reports may be handled differently.

While China is a signatory to the UN covenants on the Rights of the Child, Racial Discrimination and Torture, it has adamantly refused to accede to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

Yet China promised cryptically in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration that the two covenants would continue to apply in the Special Administrative Region (SAR) after 1997. This undertaking is also enshrined in the Basic Law.

Such a promise in 1984 was obviously to assure the jittery Hong Kong people that their civil liberties would be protected.

However, since then China has repeatedly said it would not submit reports to the two UN committees on the SAR as is required by the ICCPR and ICESCR.

Although the British Government insists that China has an obligation to do so, China is not impressed. The two UN committees have also indicated they would like to receive reports on Hong Kong after 1997 and have called on China to cooperate.

It was only last October that the UN Human Rights Committee held hearings to consider the Fourth Periodic Report on Hong Kong under the ICCPR. Because many issues remained unresolved, Hong Kong groups which attended the hearing, including a Legco delegation, urged the committee to ask the British Government to submit a supplementary report this summer and to hold further hearings to review progress.

Within Legco, the responsibility for scrutinising reports submitted to the UN rests with the Home Affairs Panel. In the past few months, the panel has held a number of meetings with non-government organisations and Hong Kong Government officials.

The Legco House Committee has submitted reports prepared by the Home Affairs Panel to the Committee on Rights of the Child and to the Human Rights Committee.

In both reports, Legco urged the UN committees to ask the British government to submit further reports next year after the change of sovereignty in order to sum up 155 years of colonial rule. This is an exceptional request because by the time Britain submits its reports, it will no longer be the sovereign state responsible for Hong Kong. Will the UN invite Britain to attend hearings and discuss the reports?

However, Legco feels that Britain has a duty to report on whether it has satisfactorily discharged its obligations under the various UN covenants regarding Hong Kong. After all, 150 years of colonial rule should not be concluded without some serious stock taking on the implementation of these human rights covenants.

Emily Lau

1996/1997 (c) Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor