My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given to an Urgent Question in another place on the guilty verdict handed to pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong. The Statement is as follows:
“At the outset, I emphasise to the right honourable Gentleman and the House that the UK Government are acutely aware of our enduring responsibilities to Hong Kong. We were a joint signatory to upholding the joint declaration between the UK and China some 35 years ago. That joint declaration is lodged, of course, with the UN. As such, we remain absolutely committed to monitoring and ensuring the faithful implementation of the joint declaration and, indeed, the principle of ‘one country, two systems’.
I reassure the House that we clearly and consistently raise our concerns with the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities. Parliament is updated on developments in Hong Kong through our six-monthly reports submitted by the Foreign Secretary, most recently on 27 March, just over a fortnight ago. We always stand ready to comment publicly and robustly when appropriate.
Yesterday the Hong Kong courts gave their first verdict on the nine key figures in the Hong Kong Occupy movement. These protesters were arrested after large-scale protests in 2014. Yesterday, each was found guilty of at least one public nuisance offence. Now such offences carry a maximum sentence of seven years in prison. We shall have a better understanding of the severity of the sentence, and therefore the signal this purports to send to others who choose to exercise their rights under Hong Kong’s Basic Law and Bill of Rights, once sentences have been handed down. Sentencing is due on 24 April, and the defendants have the right to appeal. It would therefore not be appropriate to comment further or in detail on these ongoing legal cases. Suffice to say, this could be a very protracted legal process, which could take years rather than months.
I have visited Hong Kong twice as Foreign Office Minister, and have held meetings with a number of senior legal figures. When I visited in November I raised the issue of the rule of law with the deputy chief justice, as well as with representatives from the legal, political and business communities. All staunchly defended the independence of the judiciary, and it remains our position that Hong Kong’s rule of law remains robust, largely thanks to its world-class independent judiciary. Many Members know that Baroness Hale, Lord Hoffmann and others are members of that independent judiciary.
Hong Kong citizens are guaranteed the right to freedom of assembly and demonstration under the Sino-British declaration of 1984 and the Basic Law, and in a democracy it is important that these things are respected. Hong Kong’s success and stability depend on its high degree of enduring autonomy and respect for the fundamental rights and freedoms enshrined in the joint declaration and the Basic Law. The Foreign Secretary pronounced recently that he was,
‘concerned that on civil and political freedoms, Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy is being reduced’.
It would be deeply concerning if this ruling discourages legitimate protest in the future, or indeed discourages Hong Kong citizens from engaging in political activity”.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the response. A serious discussion on the situation in Hong Kong is overdue. China’s erosion of the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Hong Kong Basic Law has been growing since the Umbrella Movement protests in 2014. The last few years have seen an increasing crackdown on dissent and protest, political parties banned, pro-democracy candidates blocked from standing and journalists expelled.
The conviction of nine leaders of the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement, who could face seven years in prison for organising peaceful protests, as the Minister said, is totally disproportionate and clearly politically motivated. The proposal to change Hong Kong’s extradition laws means that they could serve sentences thousands of miles away in mainland China.
The Sino-British joint declaration is a legally binding treaty registered with the United Nations, and the British Government are the joint guarantor, with China, of the rights of Hong Kong citizens, so I have one simple question for the Minister: how are the Government going to fulfil their legal responsibility to the citizens of Hong Kong?
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for raising these issues. As he will be aware—as I said in the Statement—we produce six-monthly statements as required. In his recent statement on this, the Foreign Secretary said:
“It is very welcome that in the areas of business and the independence of the judiciary, the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ model is working well. However, I am concerned that on civil and political freedoms, Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy is being reduced”.
I assure the noble Lord that we are cognisant of the recent issues, particularly the events concerning protesters from the 2015 protests. As I have said, it would be inappropriate to comment on that case specifically, but I reassure the noble Lord that we are using all our offices—through the consul-general and direct visits that my right honourable friends the Foreign Secretary and the Minister of State have made to Asia and Hong Kong—and we will continue to speak bilaterally to the Chinese as well.
My Lords, I too thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in response to an Urgent Question from my right honourable friend Alistair Carmichael in the other place. This is, yet again, an occasion when we miss my friend Paddy Ashdown, who fought long and hard for the people of Hong Kong.
Those in Hong Kong are guaranteed the right to freedom of assembly and demonstration, as the Minister said. Surely we must be very concerned about these verdicts in the light of that. Does he agree that any sign that members of the independent judiciary—the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Hale, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hoffmann, and others—feel unable to continue would be very serious indeed? The Minister will know—the noble Lord has just made reference to this—of proposals to change Hong Kong’s extradition laws to enable suspected criminals to be extradited from Hong Kong to the mainland. Does he agree that that is extremely concerning, certainly for political activists but even for local and international businesspeople?
I agree with the noble Baroness that we all remember Lord Ashdown for a variety of reasons and this is one of those occasions. On the specific issue that she and the noble Lord raised about extradition, yes, we are acutely aware of the proposed change to legislation. We are fully considering the implications of that and how it may impact UK citizens and, in particular, as the noble Baroness said, people operating within the business community. In that regard, the British consul-general in Hong Kong has spoken to senior figures in the Hong Kong Administration to seek clarity on what the proposals will mean, particularly for UK citizens, and we continue to make a case to them. It remains the United Kingdom’s view that for Hong Kong’s future success it is essential that Hong Kong enjoys—and is seen to enjoy—the current autonomy under the agreement that was signed not only by the United Kingdom but by the Chinese Government.
My Lords, in the light of those questions, will the Minister emphasise that those who have been convicted have the right of appeal; that the basic law protects the independence of the judiciary; and that, in practice, the Hong Kong judiciary is as independent as any judiciary in the world? I declare an interest as a frequent advocate in the Hong Kong courts both for and against the Government of Hong Kong.
My Lords, the noble Lord speaks with immense expertise and experience in this regard. I can assure him on all three of those statements in terms of the autonomy and independence of the judiciary. Since this agreement has been in place over the past 30 years, there has been only one occasion, in 2016, when we had formally to call out a lack of adherence to the principles of the treaty. He asked about the right of appeal. The people who have been convicted are currently out on bail. Sentencing is due on 24 April and they will have 28 days thereafter to lodge a formal appeal.
My Lords, on the status of the original agreement, co-signed by our Government and the party which has contact with Peking, how is a dispute about the interpretation of that agreement settled? Do such agreements have some sort of implicit or explicit arbitration or other clause about how to enforce the agreement if there is a dispute about its enforceability?
My Lords, I am sure the noble Lord heard me say in response to the previous question that there has been only one occasion in the past 30 years when we have had to call in a contravention with regard to the treaty and its obligations. In terms of its implications and application in international law, as was raised by the noble Lord earlier, the joint declaration is lodged directly with the United Nations. Therefore, the obligations on both the British Government and the Chinese Government are clear.
My Lords, following the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, is it not worth stressing that one of the strengths of the current system in Hong Kong is the presence of the non-resident judges in the Court of Final Appeal? Some names have been mentioned already and there are several more. It is part of the system that exists and I believe that it is not under any challenge whatever.
My Lords, I totally concur with the noble and learned Lord in that respect. That is why we have stood firm on the “one country, two systems” application and will continue to do so. As I said in response to an earlier question, we ensure that any concerns are raised bilaterally with the Hong Kong authorities or directly with the Chinese Government.
My Lords, I agree with my noble friend Lord Pannick and my noble and learned friend Lord Hope that the system in Hong Kong has remained remarkably stable in the courts despite some choppy waters politically over the last few years. That rule of law is enormously important—for the people of Hong Kong and for commercial relations with Hong Kong. It is wise to do our utmost to bolster the rule of law and not rush too quickly into criticising until we know how that has worked out.
I totally concur with the noble Lord. That is why I have resisted commenting in any great degree of detail on the case. It is right that we see due process take its course, and we are confident, certainly thus far, that we have seen little demonstration of any contravention of the agreement signed with the Chinese. While concerns remain, as articulated by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, we have no reason to believe that the Chinese authorities will not uphold what the court system decides.
My Lords, in view of what has already been said, I hesitate to intervene, but having been a judge of the Court of Final Appeal in Hong Kong and having served my term there, so to speak, it is important for me to acknowledge that my experience is the same as the other experiences the House has heard about. Hong Kong deserves great credit for the way it has ensured that the rule of law functions efficiently.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Wilson of Tillyorn, is too modest to say that he was one of the key architects of the joint declaration and put many thousands of hours into negotiating it. I agree with other noble Lords that we can be proud as a nation of what the JD has delivered in terms of stability in Hong Kong, but the price of that is eternal vigilance. The Minister has already assured us that the Government are going to continue to press very hard on this crucial issue.
I assure the noble Lord that that will be the case. On a lighter note, I am reminded that when I joined the House in 2011 I was advised, as a Minister answering in the House of Lords, “When you give a response, Tariq, make sure you look around you because as a minimum someone has probably written a book about the subject”. The experience in your Lordships’ House has been clearly demonstrated on this issue.