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Thu, Jan 04, 2001 - Page 4 News List

China given credit for HK rights laws

Australian Andrew Byrnes, associate professor of law at the University of Hong Kong and department director for comparative and public law, has advised the Attorney General's Chambers in Hong Kong on human rights and is a member of both the International League for Human Rights and the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor. He talked to 'Tapei Times' staff reporter Irene Lin about rights in Hong Kong and how 'one China, two systems' is working in the former UK colony

By Irene Lin  /  STAFF REPORTER

TT: Does Hong Kong have any official human rights institution similar to the national human rights commission that the UN has advocated since the late 1970s?

Byrnes: It doesn't have a national human rights commission but it has the Equal Opportunities Commission, which looks at discrimination against gender, pregnancy, marital and family status, as well as disability.

It doesn't have the general authority to receive complaints of violations of international treaties which apply to Hong Kong.

It does, however, have an educational function, and it has the authority to receive individuals' complaints against discrimination. Its primary role there is to investigate, and try to resolve the complaint.

If it can't, then it may grant the complainant assistance in taking the matter to court.

TT: What is the foremost human rights concern in Hong Kong at the moment?

Byrnes: The most serious ongoing human rights question is the lack of democratic accountability, both of the chief executive, who is elected by a small circle of 800, and also of the legislature whose election is not fully democratic.

Unfortunately, this affects everything because it means the government and the legislature cannot be held accountable by the majority of people.

Unlike Taiwan, we can't change our chief executive and we can't change the government.

What Beijing says essentially goes in terms of who is going to be the chief executive.

There are a number of other major issues of which the Public Order Ordinance is a big concern at the moment.

This law in effect regulates when demonstrations and public meetings can be held.

This is an area that was liberalized just before the transfer of sovereignty in 1997.

One of the first things the Provisional Legislative Council (the new Legislative Council) did after the handover was to tighten up in this area. People are getting very upset as they think it's now too restrictive.

Unfortunately, the government has mishandled this matter. They don't want to go back to the former liberalized law because that will be an even greater loss of face for the pro-Beijing forces.

The government has been very uncompromising too, which has stirred up lots of opposition against the law. So this is one of the big topics of public debate at the present moment.

TT: Have there been any changes in human rights matters following the handover in 1997?

Byrnes: Yes. The big change is that the legislature became less democratic immediately.

On the positive side, we got a new bill of rights, constitutional rights, economic rights and so on. However a number of liberal measures were repealed.

Things looked quite good after a Court of Final Appeal judgement in January 1999 upheld the right under the Basic Law to allow children of Hong Kong residents to immigrate to Hong Kong from China.

The government didn't like that, and was not prepared to accept the judgment so it went to the standing committee of the National People's Congress and got them to overturn the court's ruling.

That, I think, has undermined the rule of law. But it has made it very clear the court is not the final arbiter and the government is not prepared to accept its decisions when it loses a case.

Unfortunately, the courts seem to have retreated a little since then.

TT: Has freedom of expression or freedom of the press been affected at all since 1997?

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